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`Domeball' - the thing that ate Tokyo baseball

BASEBALL traditionalists, take note. The dreaded ``domeball'' has spread its tentacles overseas.

This year Japanese baseball players will stand with their hands on their hips, wondering where the fly balls disappeared. Pitchers will denounce mysterious currents emanating from the air-conditioning ducts for carrying balls into the stands. And commentators will wonder whether a game played without exposure to nature's caprices can truly be called baseball.

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The Tokyo Dome, or as it is alternately named, the Big Egg, has officially been open for less than two weeks. The Teflon-coated Fiberglas-cloth roof, supported by air pressure, has already deflected the rains from a heavyweight-title boxing match, a Mick Jagger rock concert, and a couple of exhibition ball games.

For weeks Japanese fans and players have been bombarded with seemingly endless television and newspaper accounts of the new universe of domeball. Reporters traveled to Minnesota to interview Twins players, whose Metrodome is the model for the Tokyo Dome, about how easily fly balls fade into the milky-white background of the roof.

Computer analysts calculated how much farther batted balls might travel in the windless, air-conditioned air. And countless clips of Minnesota's World Series victory were shown, with special attention to the way Minnesota's fans made the dome reverberate with their ear-shattering cheers.

So when players from Japan's 12 professional teams arrived for a pre-season wrap-up tournament last week, they expected the worst.

A decidedly unscientific poll found them pleasantly surprised.

``It's much easier to follow the ball than I expected,'' said Shigeru Takada, manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

The center-fielder for the Nankai Hawks, Makoto Sasaki, agreed it wasn't too bad. ``But you have to follow the ball from the time it leaves the bat,'' he added, ``or it disappears.''

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As for whether the stadium will earn a reputation as a hitters' paradise, the vote was in early.

``The ball travels good,'' was the pithy appraisal of Brian Dayett, recently with the Chicago White Sox and now occupying right field for the Fighters.

Legend has already spread of the feats than can be accomplished here. ``See that beer sign up there,'' one player recounted, pointing to an advertising poster high above the left-field stands. ``Boomer [the strapping American-imported first baseman of the Hankyu Braves] hit that with a line drive that was still rising.''

The dome will be the home for two pro teams - the Central League's Yomiuri Giants and the Pacific League's Fighters. It is considered entirely natural that the Giants (the nation's No. 1 diamond squad and the oldest professional team) be the first to play ball under the dome.

How does it compare with Houston's Astrodome or Seattle's Kingdome? ``Ask Matt,'' said Hanshin Tigers slugger Randy Bass, pointing to Matt Keough, a teammate and well-traveled former US major-leaguer.

``It's a nice place,'' the expert pronounced. The mustachioed pitcher dismissed Seattle's reinforced concrete stadium, opened in 1976, as ``low budget'' and ``rinky-dink.'' The Big Egg is even better than the 1980s Metrodome - ``they [Minneapolis] made it for football.'' Enough said.

The fans seem happy, too, with the wider blue plastic seats and the sparkling interior. But they miss that old outdoor feeling.

``I feel a bit unnatural about seeing baseball under a ceiling,'' said Atsushi Saito. ``I always had this image of baseball played under the sun.''

``It would be perfect if the top could be opened,'' mused Fumie Takahashi.

The fans have another worry. The authorities are considering a ban on the drums, horns, and other noisemakers that blare ceaselessly from organized cheering sections of die-hard fans in the outfield bleachers. They worry that the noise will, `a la the Metrodome, drown out the game.

The horn-blowers are on trial during the tournament. But in Japan, only a designated cheering section does the yelling. Everyone else sits quietly, applauding politely when a good play is made. So far they haven't come close to the decibel heights reached by Twins followers.

Of course ballplayers can be as tradition-bound as any fan. ``I don't like the dome,'' Dayett said without hesitation. ``It changes the whole game.''

But in Japan, there is one powerful argument for the dome that all the players are swayed by. ``We can play in the rain,'' said the Hawks rotund catcher, Nobuyuki Kagawa.

During the summer months, from July through September, it rains every second or third day. Games are often played from beginning to end in the clammy drizzle that characterizes the Japanese rainy season. The downpour picks up enough to halt 10 or 20 games a season, all of which must be made up at the end of the official schedule. The season can drag on for several additional weeks so makeup games may be played.

For Randy Bass, who has played ball in Japan since 1983, the dome means he can get back home to his ranch in Oklahoma that much sooner. ``It's a good thing. I'll get out of Japan early.''

So some will like it. And some won't. Either way, domeball is clearly here to stay.

Can ``homer hankies'' be far behind?

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