I was told that the Japanese are rigid about rules, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I and about ten other Red Sox Nation members were barred from entering the Tokyo Dome with the rest of our group. Why were we not allowed to join our party to see the Red Sox’ afternoon workout? Because, you see, we were not wearing our Red Sox Nation badges around our necks. (We had left them at the hotel.) No badge, no entry, period.
Our tour guides explained in Japanese that we were legitimate members of the Red Sox group, but the security guards seemed genuinely puzzled — as though no one had ever, in the history of the Tokyo Dome, attempted to talk his way into the park. And yet, while refusing us admission, the security guards could not have been more polite and considerate. Still, rules are rules in Tokyo. No badge, no entry. Period.
Now eventually, they did let us in, and the solution to the problem tells you more about Japanese culture than anything else I’ll write while I’m here. Several Japanese people working outside the dome with badges found out what was going on and handed us their security badges to borrow for two hours. As soon as I had Tomoko Hiragi’s badge around my neck, I was whisked into the Dome as if I were the President of Red Sox Nation. Amazing, no?
Inside the dome, 150 of us crowded into the front two rows along the first base line and into deep right field to watch a baseball practice. Other than the fact that J.D. Drew entertained us with multiple bombs into the right field seats, there really isn’t much to report about the practice itself. They played catch. They fielded ground balls. They jogged a lot. They took B.P. Hey, it was their last practice before a grueling 162-game schedule, and they were just trying to stay loose.
But you know what I’ll remember about today’s practice? Billy Torres, a seventh grader from Swampscott. Billy’s dad, Bill, won an all-expenses paid trip for two to this opening series in a random drawing on WEEI and decided to bring his son with him. Today, Billy had a fan experience that will be difficult to top during his lifetime.
Standing in the first row in right field’s foul territory with a glove on his hand, Billy was intent on getting a ball. Somehow. But the players were pretty much ignoring us, the security guards on the field (following a Tokyo Dome rule, no doubt) would not even pick up foul balls at their feet, and we were too far foul for any batting practice shots to reach us. So Billy took matters into his own hands and set out for the right field bleachers.
Good thing he didn’t know that fans aren’t allowed up there, or else he wouldn’t have grabbed a Manny Ramirez home run ball, then asked Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima in Japanese to sign his ball (a local TV reporter taught him the words). Both stars, who were standing on the warning track chatting during B.P., happily obliged for the only kid near enough to them to get their attention. Billy threw them his ball and a pen, they signed, then they tossed them back. Seconds later, a polite security guard asked Billy to leave the bleachers and return to the group.
There really aren’t many things better than seeing a kid’s expression when he or she is breathlessly, speechlessly thrilled about getting a ball, an autograph, or both at a ball game. “Rob, this makes my whole trip!” he said to me. “I guess some rules are meant to be broken!”