TOKYO, JAPAN: Fans cheer for Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Seattle Mariners during MLB match against the Oakland Athletics at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics kicked off the 2012 baseball season a week before the rest of Major League Baseball, with games on March 28th and 29th. Seattle took the first game 3-1 in eleven innings, behind two RBI from second baseman Dustin Ackley, while Oakland captured the second game 4-1, hitting late home runs against three different Mariners relief pitchers. One of the A's home runs was hit by Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36-million contract in February.
These two teams were scheduled to open the 2003 season in Japan, but that trip was canceled when the U.S. invaded Iraq. While the A's subsequently opened the 2008 season in Japan against the Red Sox, this year's games were the first for the Mariners in Japan. That's significant not just because the team's longtime star player, Ichiro Suzuki, hails from Japan, but because the team's majority owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, is Japanese.
Yamauchi, who purchased the team in 1992, is perhaps the only owner in the history of professional sports never to see his team play in person, a streak that surprisingly remains intact. With his team playing in Tokyo, a two-hour drive from his home in Kyoto, Yamauchi declined to attend either of the two games against Oakland, or the exhibition games the Mariners played against two Japanese teams. Ichiro, the only Mariner player who has met Yamauchi, was disappointed, telling the media at the Tokyo Dome through an interpreter, "Yes, of course, I would like to play in front of Yamauchi."
The rest of the M's players had to be disappointed too, if not annoyed, that the team's owner couldn't be bothered to have his limo driver take him to the stadium to spend a few minutes introducing himself to the players who flew halfway around the world to play in these games.
It was my first trip to Japan and I couldn't help but notice the differences between baseball in the U.S. and baseball in Japan. First off, even thought this was hardly a marquee match-up -- the two teams brought up the rear in the American League West in 2011, finishing a combined 42 games under .500 -- the games were both sellouts. That's a good thing for the "home-team" A's, who finished last in the Majors in home attendance last season, averaging slightly more than 18,000 fans per game.
But the fans in Japan were excited to see MLB return to Tokyo for the first time since 2008 and particularly delighted to see Ichiro, who, other than appearances for Team Japan in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, hadn't played in his homeland since joining the Mariners in 2001. Flashbulbs were widespread throughout the stadium for each of his at-bats and Ichiro, who had his streak of ten consecutive 200-hit seasons snapped in '11, didn't disappoint, going 4 for 5 in the first game. This may have been Japan's last opportunity to see their beloved Ichiro in a Seattle uniform, as the 38-year-old's contract expires at the end of this season.
Other things you won't soon see on this side of the Pacific: Fans at the Tokyo Dome are allowed to bring their own beverages, including beer, into the stadium. Upon arrival, instead of confiscating your beer like they do in the U.S., a security guard pours your beer into a cup and disposes of the can or bottle for you. It's doubtful we'll ever see that in MLB, as the teams are so anxious to sell you $10 beer. Heck, at Seattle's Safeco Field, fans aren't even allowed to bring bottled water in to the stadium, because the team wants them to pay $4 for it inside.
If you do want to buy the overpriced beer inside the stadium, in Japan you'll get it served by a teenage girl carrying a refrigerated mini-keg on her back and roaming the stadium. Service was tremendous, with a steady supply of these girls roaming the aisles. Nary a minute went by without an opportunity to purchase another beer. In another twist, beer sales continued throughout the game and were not cut off in the seventh inning, as is customary in the States.
After each foul ball is hit, the PA announcer warns fans to "please watch out for foul balls," which seems a little late. An usher does blow a whistle as such balls are hit, alerting fans who might not be paying attention.
Exhibition games Seattle and Oakland played against Japanese teams the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants featured the organized cheering sections of those teams in the outfield bleachers, banging drums, blowing horns and singing different songs for each of their team's players. One Mariners player, relief pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen, got in on the action, buying some Tigers gear and planting himself in the middle of the Hanshin cheering section.
While this trip wreaks havoc on the two teams' preparation for the 2012 season, it's good for baseball and, let's face it, neither Seattle or Oakland will be competing for a playoff spot this year anyway. Seventy percent of MLB's international revenues come from Japan, so it's important to continue to cultivate that market. It's expected that in the coming years, we'll see teams playing regular-season games in Europe and other parts of the World, as part of Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to grow the game globally. While I don't always agree with everything Selig does, exposing MLB to a wider audience is most definitely a good thing.
Jon Wells is the Editor and Publisher of The Grand Salami, a monthly magazine about the Seattle Mariners that has been published continuously since 1996. His book, Shipwrecked: A Peoples' History of the Seattle Mariners, was recently published by Epicenter Press. (Here is Lookout Landing's review.)