Overseas games bring National Pastime to global audience
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.
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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.