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Baseball hitters battling the beer can blues

by Rob Smaal (Aug 31, 2009)

BayStars slugger Dan Johnson doesn't have anything against beer. In fact, he says, since he arrived in Japan this spring he has become a big fan of Kirin and Sapporo.

What the former Oakland A's infielder can do without, however, are the two large silver Asahi Super Dry beer can banners that adorn either side of the center-field scoreboard at Yokohama Stadium.

"If a right-hander throws you a curveball outside, you're done, game over," said the left-handed batting Johnson before a recent game in Yokohama. "We faced (Hiroshima Carp right-hander) Colby Lewis here. He stands on the third-base side of the rubber and it was like we weren't even in the game--strike out, strike out."

The beer can banners are light silver in color with black labeling and, as Johnson points out, they also have just enough red in them to simulate the seams of a baseball. The problem is that some hitters have a hard time picking up the pitch when it comes out of a background so similar to the baseball.

As Yakult Swallows outfielder Aaron Guiel, who has similar complaints about the scoreboard at his home park, Jingu Stadium, says, "It's tough enough to pick up a 95 miles-per-hour (152 kph) fastball at the best of times, but when you've got to find the ball in a backdrop of colored beer ads and bright lights so close to a pitcher's release point, it just makes it that much tougher."

Johnson, in his first year in Japan, has been having a boom-or-bust season at the plate. Through Saturday's games, he was hitting .221 with 20 home runs among his 58 hits. In other words, 35 percent of his hits have left the yard this season.

But of those 20 HRs, only three--or a measly 15 percent--have come at his home stadium, which dimension-wise is considered a very hitter-friendly ballpark, so the stats seem to lend some credence to his complaint.

And Johnson is not alone in his contempt for the beer cans. Teammate Kazuya Fujita, another left-handed hitter, agreed that it was extremely difficult to pick up pitches at Yokohama Stadium, especially those delivered by taller right-handed pitchers who come over the top. Even the Hanshin Tigers' Craig Brazell, who slammed a pair of fifth-inning home runs in Wednesday's 9-3 win over the BayStars, had problems picking up the ball in Yokohama.

"I got a slider kind of down starting in on me and you just can't see it," Brazell said. "It's tough to see the ball here, no doubt about that. When you see a ball spinning coming out of something a silver and blackish color, it's tough to pick up. Those (beer) signs are right there where you're looking so it's tough not to see them."

All this begs the question, why not just move them? Johnson has lobbied for it and he has gotten the same answer that many other complainants have received over the years: Asahi Breweries pays a lot of money for that location and that's where they're staying.

When a team official was asked how much revenue the beer banners generated for the club, she said that was confidential, but she did acknowledge that it was "a lot of money."

Many ballparks have their quirks, and that all makes the game that much more interesting. Some of the newer MLB parks have even added elements to give their playing fields a little character, such as the slope in center field in Houston or the warehouse that comes into play in San Diego.

And don't forget about the old classics, like Boston's Fenway Park with it 11.2-meter high Green Monster in left field and the Pesky Pole in right or the ivy covered outfield wall at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

One thing, however, that is never compromised in major league stadiums is the sight lines for the hitters.

"In the major leagues, they make sure the hitter's field of vision is unimpaired," said Guiel, who spent parts of five seasons in MLB before joining the Swallows three years ago. "There shouldn't be anything distracting the hitter's eye."

Guiel points to the case of Seattle's Safeco Field, whose green backdrop would sometimes generate glare, depending on the angle of the sun. They tried painting it a duller green before eventually planting shrubs to remedy the problem.

"I'd even go so far as to say that if they had signs like this (in a hitter's field of vision) in the U.S. and a batter got hit by a pitch and was seriously injured, the team might be liable for a lawsuit," said Guiel, who has 21 home runs this season but has had trouble making contact at Jingu. "You just could not put up signs behind a pitcher"s release point. The problem is the people selling the signs (in North American minor-league parks and in some Japanese stadiums) probably never played baseball. They just don't understand how important the hitting eye is to the quality of the game."

Guiel says the best stadiums for hitters in the Central League are Koshien and Tokyo Dome, with its solid flat green backdrop (the off-white ceiling is another story, however), and Johnson mentions Nagoya Dome and the Carp's new park in Hiroshima.

"It's nice when you don't have to worry about outside things and can just focus on the pitcher," Johnson said. "I think it speaks for itself when I've hit three home runs here and 17 on the road. I have major issues."

As for pitchers consciously using a "camouflaged" backdrop to their advantage, BayStars starter Ryan Glynn said it just doesn't happen. While Glynn, who is in his fourth season pitching in Japan, said he is aware of the issues hitters have with the signs, it's not something pitchers discuss at meetings or try to exploit.

"The only people I've ever heard mention it are the hitters," Glynn said.

So someone pass Johnson and the boys some beer goggles--it looks like the signs are here to stay.


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