The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have been a part of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league since 2004, when they emerged as NPB’s first brand new team in half a century. Just nine years later, the Eagles were crowned national champions, earning them the dedicated support of fans all across northern Japan and setting the mood for a new era of baseball in the country.

But what really goes on in the lives of legends? What is everyday life like for the players themselves? One enterprising author named Yuji Moritaka, together with manga artist Kintaro Adachi, has made an art of giving fans a sneak peek behind the scenes through his hit baseball manga: Gurazeni.

An alternative take on Japan’s baseball world

Gurazeni follows the story of the fictional Natsunosuke Bonda, a somewhat mediocre professional baseball player (the characters for “Bonda” translate to “mediocre hitter”) who is obsessed by other players’ salaries and how they compare to his own. The word “gurazeni” reflects this sentiment – it is an abbreviation of a famous phrase uttered by legendary coach Kazuto Tsuruoka: “There is money to be made on the field.” Tsuruoka used this phrase to motivate players to practice twice as hard as their peers, while pioneering the use of player data to effectively match team lineups.

These themes come up time and time again in Gurazeni, as Bonda agonizes over the statistical data of his fellow players, using it to climb the baseball ladder and prolong his baseball career.

Strong parallels with the Rakuten Eagles

The fictional world in which Gurazeni takes place draws many parallels with prominent teams, coaches and players from the real baseball industry. (One side story briefly sees Bonda transferred to the “Boston Blue Sox.”)

Gurazeni's creators collaborated extensively with the Rakuten Eagles in creating the latest installment of the manga, interacting with the players and visiting their training camps.

Gurazeni’s creators collaborated extensively with the Rakuten Eagles in creating the latest installment of the manga, interacting with the players and visiting their training camps.

But with the manga’s third and most recent installment, the connections to Rakuten have never been more clear. Bonda decides to transfer to Japan’s Pacific League, joining the fictitious “Sendai Golden Cups” – a team that sports an eerily similar uniform to one sported by the very real Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Pacific League. The Golden Cups’ home ground in the city of Sendai is known as Miyagi Stadium in the manga – a choice very close to the official name of Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi as well.

Author Yuji Moritaka shared some perspective on his decision to take Bonda to Sendai. “I decided to put him somewhere he’d never been before – the Pacific League,” he commented. “Why Sendai in particular? There are a few reasons. I wanted him to go somewhere away from the big city – away from Osaka, away from Tokyo but still easily accessible for me to still be able to go and conduct research.”

Moritaka and Adachi collaborated extensively with the Rakuten Eagles in creating the latest installment of Gurazeni, interacting with the players and visiting their training camps. “The staff of Rakuten Baseball were incredibly kind, as were the various media outlets in the Tohoku region.”

In the manga, the 32-year-old Bonda chooses to move to Sendai because he sees a chance to rack up a large number of wins with the team and boost his statistics – but Moritaka says that his depiction of the team’s play style and strategies comes entirely from his imagination.

“If one were to find any similarities [between the manga and real life], I suppose the ‘ball park’ atmosphere of Eagles games would be up there,” he explains. “The stadium area always has this wonderful, festival-like atmosphere, and I think that’s also the case for the Golden Cups.”

Another hit sports manga

Sports stories have always held a special place in the hearts of manga fans around the world, with inspirational hits such as Slam Dunk and Captain Tsubasa, a favorite of soccer stars like Lionel Messi, Lukas Podolski and recent Vissel Kobe signee Andres Iniesta. In April 2018, Gurazeni made its debut as an anime – a strong indicator of success for any manga.

The current installment is being released weekly, and we look forward to finding out where the story takes Bonda and his teammates from the “Golden Cups.”