Back in the summer of 2006, I attended my first and only Chiba Lotte Marines home game.

The team was still flush with the success of having won the 2005 NPB championship, and the anonymous concrete ballpark was festooned with pictures of the Marines’ beloved manager, Bobby Valentine.

The souvenir stands sold t-shirts, posters, and programs that featured Bobby’s familiar aggressive smile. The concession stands offered various boxed meals adorned with Bobby’s face.

The other dominant decorative element throughout the ballpark was the number 26, which my wife explained was the product of some typical Valentinian poetry from the championship year regarding how the fans were the 26th player on the team.

And really, Bobby might have been onto something. The Marines’ fans seemed deeply invested in a sort of ritual of support for their team.

Each Marines’ player had their own theme song, and a cheering contingent in the right-field bleachers would sing the relevant number during each at bat throughout the game. Many of these songs were accompanied by elaborate and well-choreographed hand motions. In between innings, cheerleaders took the field and led the crowd in additional chants of support.

During the top of the seventh inning, I noticed that ushers had begun discreetly handing out long white balloons. When the half inning ended, there was a brief announcement, and suddenly everyone in the stadium started blowing up their balloons. Soon after that, there was a countdown from 10, at the end of which all of the balloons were released. For a few brief moments, the air was filled with expiring white balloons, criss crossing wildly and then crashing to the ground. If you squinted, it looked kind of like a middle-school biology film.

The 2006 Marines could not duplicate the success of the 2005 squad, but Benny Agbayani did his part, contributing 17 HRs and driving in 65. He stuck with the team through the 2009 season, his contributions diminishing each year. I was thrilled when Benny hit the decisive double in that game I attended at Marines Stadium…

The card featured here is Benny’s 2001 Topps Employees issue. These cards were produced in limited numbers for distribution to Topps’ staff in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the company’s first baseball card set. The cards are essentially the same as the regular 2001 set, except they are embossed with a barely perceptible logo that reads “limited edition for Topps employees.”

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