Overseas games bring National Pastime to global audience

Written by: Brad Lefton

The Tokyo Dome boasts an American baseball record. It has hosted more regular season Major League Baseball games than any venue outside of North America.

After the Seattle Mariners swept the two-game, season-opening series from the Oakland Athletics March 20-21, the Minneapolis Metrodome look-alike with an air supported, Teflon coated roof has now hosted 10 games that count in the standings, beginning with a two-game series between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs in 2000.

Of course, the history of America’s professional game being taken to Japan dates back much further. The Reach Sporting Goods Company sponsored a team of major and minor leaguers for a 17-game tour against Japanese collegiate teams in 1908. Such off-season barnstorming exhibitions quickly grew in popularity. Seven future Hall of Famers joined the 1931 tour, including Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove and Rabbit Maranville.

Babe Ruth famously headlined the 1934 tour, which is credited with helping Japan establish its own pro league in 1936. That barnstorming team may have been the greatest ever as it included nine players now enshrined in Cooperstown. Joining the Babe and Gehrig were Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin, Rogers Hornsby, Earl Averill and Heinie Manush.

The New York Giants became the first complete team to tour Japan in 1953. The Yankees followed in ’55 and the Dodgers in ’56. Stan “the Man” Musial and his St. Louis Cardinals were the first non-New York team to go over in ‘58.

Complete teams and all-star squads continued visiting Japan over the next four decades. But with the turn of the century came a new concept: Regular season competition pitting two MLB teams against each other in games that would count in the standings.

It had been done before when the Mets and San Diego Padres played a 3-game series in Monterrey, Mexico, Aug. 16-18, 1996. MLB went back to Monterrey with the Padres and Colorado Rockies to open the season in ’99. But the Tokyo games in ’00 would be the first regular season games outside North America.

The tradition of overseas games continues in 2019 with the London Series June 29-30 between the Red Sox and the Yankees – the first regular season games contested in Europe.

The 2000 series between the Cubs and Mets is unusual in that neither team featured a Japanese player. Only pitchers had left Japan to challenge themselves in America at that time and since it had been just five seasons since Hideo Nomo paved the way for a continuous influx of talent from Japan by signing with the Dodgers, the pace was still a trickle.

The attraction of the inaugural series was the Cubs Sammy Sosa and the Mets Mike Piazza, a pair of sluggers unlike any in Japan’s domestic game. A sellout crowd was entertained as Sosa went 2-3 with a double and Piazza went 2-4 with a 2-run homer in the opening game. The Cubs won 5-3.

Fans experienced the thrill of power the next night, too, but from a less likely source. Benny Agbayani came off the bench in the top of the 11th inning and slugged a pinch-hit, grand slam over the wall in straightaway center field to send the Mets to a dramatic 5-1 win.

The success of that series coupled with the guarantee of being able to see a Japanese player compete inspired MLB to return quickly. Ichiro Suzuki became America’s first position player from Japan when he signed with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.

Along with countrymen Kazuhiro Sasaki, the Mariners closer, and reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, the threesome was the main draw to a ’03 season opening series between Seattle and the Oakland Athletics.

However, with the threat of war between the United States and Iraq intensifying, the series was abruptly canceled as the teams were preparing to fly to Tokyo.

The honor of returning to Japan in a regular season game as a U.S. major leaguer went to Hideki Matsui in ’04 when his Yankees opened the season against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The excitement was euphoric as Matsui was returning to the very stadium where he had amassed his stardom over 10 years playing for the Yomiuri Giants, whose home park is the Tokyo Dome. Matsui signed with the Yankees in ’03.

The Devil Rays knocked off the Yankees in the opener, 8-3, but Matsui delighted the sellout crowd by delivering the first hit of MLB’s season, a double in the first inning. He created bedlam the next night by slugging a two-run homer in a 2-for-5 performance that led the Bronx Bombers to a 12-1 rout.

Afterward, he said of the response to his 5th inning blast: “The place was so loud it’s hard for me to remember the actual home run. I just recall the feeling of joy as I ran around the bases.”

Another hero returned home for MLB’s third season opening series in 2008. Pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka had signed with the Boston Red Sox a year earlier and helped them to their second World Series championship in four seasons. They began defense of their crown against the Oakland Athletics with Dice-K on the mound. A sellout crowd filled the dome and enjoyed five solid innings from the former Seibu Lions and Yokohama High School star.

He struck out six and allowed two runs, but it was a less heralded Japanese pitcher who sent the crowd home happy. After Brandon Moss tied the game for Boston in the 9th with a home run, Manny Ramirez broke the tie with a double in the 10th. Hideki Okajima, who pitched for Yomiuri before signing with the Red Sox, earned the win in relief.

"I actually had some nerves, even when I was on the mound," Okajima said. "But I was pumped up by the cheering and everybody was just playing so hard, so I thought I had to do the same as well."

The A’s earned a spilt in the series the next night with a 5-1 win.

Japanese fans finally got to see Ichiro make his homecoming when the Mariners and A’s played the fourth season opening series in 2012. It was actually a trifecta for Japanese fans as both Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma had signed with the Mariners in the off season.

Ichiro dazzled the sellout crowd in the opening game by singling in each of his first three at bats. After flying out to deep left field, he collected a 4th hit in the 11th inning with an RBI single to center that helped send Seattle to a 3-1 win. The A’s earned a series split the next night behind eight solid innings from Bartolo Colon, 4-1.

"I've never been that nervous before," Ichiro admitted after the first game. "The warmth of the fans almost made me want to cry. I felt the significance of the occasion. I knew it would only happen once in my life. I wanted to share a special moment and give something back to them."

It actually happened twice in his life. Ichiro was once again the marquee attraction for the fifth and most recent season opening series this year, once again between Seattle and Oakland. This time, fans sensed that it may truly be the last chance to see their hero – now 45 years old – play live. Not only did they pack the dome, but for every ball he put in play during batting practice to his introduction in the pregame ceremony and through each swing at the plate and throw from right field, they cheered him wildly and affectionately.

Ichiro went 0-1 with a walk in the first game, an entertaining 9-7 win by Seattle. Ichiro again started in right field the next night and went 0-4 in Seattle’s 5-4, 12 inning victory.

While the Mariners became the first team to sweep a season opening series in Tokyo, the event will be forever remembered for Ichiro’s dramatic farewell to the game he played professionally for 28 seasons: Nine in Japan and 19 in America. Following the game, he announced his retirement, but news of the impending announcement had already broken during the game.

Seattle manager Scott Servais purposely pulled him from the game in the 8th inning after allowing him to take right field so the sellout crowd could give him a hero’s sendoff. He jogged off the field to the third base dugout to a thunderous ovation of appreciation. That sendoff wasn’t enough for the overflow crowd, though. Thirty minutes after the game had ended, they were still standing and applauding, demanding his return. Told of the situation by teammates, Ichiro came back out in full uniform and circled the field in its entirety returning his fans’ affection by waving to them and smiling in appreciation.

His teammates had been transformed to fans themselves, all standing in awe with their cellphone cameras pointed to the scene, recording their once-in-a-lifetime experience.

At his final press conference, Ichiro was asked if there was a favorite moment from his 28-season career.

“You mean a moment other than tonight?” Ichiro quickly replied. “Even after I have time to reflect on my career in its entirety, I can’t imagine any moment will standout more than tonight. It will be forever at the forefront of my memory.”

Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He has covered baseball in Japan and America for more than 25 years.

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