Every year, the Hanshin Tigers are put out of their main stadium, iconic Hanshin Koshien Stadium outside Osaka, so that high school teams from across the country can put the ballpark to the use for which it was originally intended.
The story goes that when the Tigers hit the road, their pennant hopes die, hence the name, “the Road Trip of Death.”
This raises three questions:
- What is it?
- How bad is it?
- Why is it?
What is it?
Currently, the road trip of death typically starts on the first weekend of August, but the time between the Tigers’ final home game at Koshien and their return has varied over the years. In 1954 and 1955, it started in early July. In 1955, the Tigers were away from Koshien from July 11 to Oct. 9. Usually it’s about three weeks.
During that time, the Tigers will typically play one series of home games at another ballpark, and four series on the road.
How bad is it?
Since 1950, the Tigers have won five Central League championships. In 12 seasons, they have left Koshien essentially tied with the eventual pennant winner or their nearest rival in those years they won the pennant.
Twice, in 1964 and 1985, the Tigers went into the road trip of death trailing the team they beat for the pennant. In 1964 they were 3-1/2 games back of eventual runners-up the Taiyo Whales, and in 1985, they were a game behind the Hiroshima Carp.
Twenty times, the Tigers went on the road trailing the eventual champion or runner-up by seven or fewer games. About half the time in the study, they were basically out of the pennant race before they went on the road.
In the 34 seasons in which they were feasibly in the race, the Tigers averaged going on the road one game back, and returned home to Koshien trailing by an average of five games.
The biggest recent disaster was probably 2010, the year Matt Murton set his NPB single-season hit record. The Tigers went on the road on July 28 leading the Chunichi Dragons by 8 games, and came back a month later trailing them by 2-1/2. Four times, the Tigers returned home to Koshien with a lead but couldn’t hold it over the final six weeks of the season, most recently in 2021.
The first quick study I did for the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast suggested that since Osaka Dome opened in 1997, the Tigers play better during their absence from Koshien than they do the rest of the season, but it’s not that simple.
There are several reasonable break points I considered in my study. The first was the introduction of the Sanyo Shinkansen between Osaka and Hiroshima in 1972, which one source cites as a watershed in making the Tigers stay away from Koshien less burdensome.
The next obvious break is being able to play on the road in domed stadiums, which began in 1988 with the opening of the Tokyo Ugly Dome. Then we have the one-dome period until 1996, and the recent period when two-fifths of the Tigers road games, and their non-Koshien home games, will likely be played indoors in the peak of the summer heat.
Oddly enough, from 1948 to 1971, the Tigers had a better winning percentage (.550) in exile than they did before their eviction (.538) or after their homecoming (.547). Since then, the road trip of death has been bad news for their winning percentage.
Why is it?
One reason often given for the road trip of death in the old days was the constant travel and fatigue of playing on the road in the summer. But the answer is much simpler.
The Tigers do poorly during their August excursion for the simple reason that they play three to four times as many road games as home games, and regardless of how well the Tigers play on the road, they never play, over a period of time, quite as well on the road as they do at home.
One reason for that is simply the fact that it’s harder to stay rested and fit while living out of hotels and traveling from city to city. I haven’t studied it yet, but I would be curious to know if Hanshin does better at the start of its walkabout, the Tigers swept their first series on the road this weekend in Yokohama, than the team does at the end.