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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

Fighters-mania warms hearts in cold Hokkaido


Staff writer

SAPPORO -- Cold wind started blowing on the northern island last week. But there is a reason for the people up here to be warm in their hearts and flash smiles on their faces.

That is, of course, because of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who are currently celebrating their first appearance in the Japan Series in 25 years, battling with the Central League champion Chunichi Dragons.

"I never imagined that when I was a child, we would have a professional baseball club right here," a 55-year-old company employee named Toshio Mitsui said outside Sapporo Dome on Monday. "Basically, Giants fans were the majority (in Hokkaido). But now it's like, 'the Giants, who?' "

Before the Fighters, there was Consadole Sapporo as the "elder pro team" in this town. When Consadole competed in the second division in order to earn promotion to the top soccer division of the J. League in 2000, it grabbed a large number of fans to pack the stadium.

But the bandwagon hype gradually cooled down, especially after the team was demoted back to the lower division in 2003.

However, the craze is back.

It came with the arrival of the Fighters, who moved from Tokyo to Sapporo in 2004.

"Fighters, thanks for the excitement," read one huge banner at a department store near the Fighters' practice facility.

"I'm feeling like I got real joy for my life," said Takahiro Suzuki, a 29-year-old who was wearing a Michihiro Ogasawara jersey with his friends at JR Sapporo Station. "I can't describe my emotion when I think of how much I am appreciative for (the Fighters') presence."

For the Fighter players, the presence of their enthusiastic fans in Sapporo is encouraging, and even reassuring.

On behalf of all the Fighters, the club's star outfielder, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, said at the beer fight after the team swept the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the Pacific League championship in Sapporo, "I really made the right decision (to) join this team and come to this place."

The city of Sapporo and the rest of Hokkaido are literally burning, with the mutual support of the team and fans, which nobody has really experienced before.



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