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End of an era for Swallows

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The Hot Corner for August 1, 2002

Baseball lost one of its great characters on Tuesday, when Masayasu Okada, the man who brought green plastic umbrellas and the Tokyo Ondo to Jingu Stadium, died of pneumonia at the age of 71.

Whatever you may think of the endless cascade of noise that, with a few rare exceptions, greets every batter in every inning of every game here, the Swallows supporters led by Okada created something worth going to the ballpark to see.

In the same way that experiencing the scope and geometry of a great ballpark for the first time is a breathtaking, first contact with the Swallows oendan is something you never forget.

While the Swallows fans are no more creative or entertaining than those who bring their barbs and deal out decibels in support of the Marines, Tigers, Carp, Buffaloes or Fighters--to name some favorites. The Swallows fans stood out because of Okada.

Standing upon a crate behind Jingu's right-field wall, the bespectacled Okada could frequently be spotted leading his troops with, of all things, a frying pan--as if he had been drying the dishes at home and left for the ballpark in the ballpark in the act of putting it away.

The frying pan was an ironic symbol for Japan's most famous cheerleader, who rejected the blunt instrument of simply taunting the opposition. Okada struck people, not with a stinging wit, but first and foremost with his humanity.

Michio Shikimori, a fan of the club since 1972, when they were the Sankei Atoms, recalls a Swallows game at Jingu against the Yomiuri Giants.

"Okada-san was on the first-base side, standing on top of the Swallows dugout. And he shouted out, 'Are there any Swallows fans here?'

"Of course, nobody answered because most of the Swallows fans were in right field. Even along first base, most of the people supported the Giants.

"So Okada-san said, 'As long as you are on the first-base side, for today, I'd like you to be Swallows fans.'

"Before long, he had most of the people there cheering not just for the Swallows or for the Giants, but for the baseball.

"He encouraged people to take part, cheering on the players for what they did--and not just the uniforms they wore. He'd say, 'You cheer and they respond. And then you respond to what they do.It's like playing catch.' It's interactive.

While only the most perverse among us enjoys the prospect of failure, baseball is largely a matter of dealing with defeats.

Okada began following the team in 1951, when the Kokutetsu Swallows were still newbies in the recently established Central League. They were new and they were bad.

One is tempted to say that Okada's efforts were finally rewarded in 1978, when the Swallows captured their first CL pennant and went on to defeat the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Japan Series.

But because the game and the players mattered as much as the wins, every little success within a game, even a defeat, was part of the payoff.

"Regardless of the results, Okada kept up the same intensity," said Hiroshi Sasaki, a Swallows fan since 1967.

Championships were just icing on the cake.

In a country where media intrusion is a fact of life for every celebrity, players tend to keep their distance from fans, yet the Swallows have always had an unusually strong bond with their fans.

Swallows players initiated the practice of scaling the outfield fence following Japan Series championships to repay their followers generous support throughout the season.

Swallows manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu and his flock were told the news before Tuesday night's game at Jingu against the Hiroshima Carp.

"We are grateful for his supporting us with all he had. We wanted to win tonight for him..." the Nikkan Sports quoted Wakamatsu quoted as saying after the Swallows fell 4-1 to the Carp. "I hope he'll be looking down on us from heaven from now on."

The Hot Corner appears each Thursday in The Daily Yomiuri .

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