By Jon Wells
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics kicked off the 2012 baseball season a week before the rest of MLB, with games on March 28th and 29th in Tokyo, Japan. The M’s took the first game 3-1 in eleven innings behind two RBI from Dustin Ackley, while Oakland captured the second game 4-1, hitting late home runs against three different Mariners relief pitchers after Eric Wedge pulled Jason Vargas—who was working on a two-hit shutout in the seventh inning—after a mere 85 pitches.
The same two teams were scheduled to open the 2003 season in Japan, but that trip was canceled due to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While the A’s subsequently opened the 2008 season in Tokyo against the Red Sox, this year’s games were the first-ever for the Mariners in Japan. That’s significant not just because the team’s longtime star player, Ichiro Suzuki, hails from that country, but because the team’s majority owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, lives there and 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 opening games or the exhibition games the Mariners played against two Japanese teams. Ichiro, the only current Mariner player who’s ever actually 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,” but added “at the same time, I don’t want to put pressure on his back.”
Pressure? Pressure is being behind on your mortgage and needing to take a second job to keep a roof over your family’s heads. Pressure is not a retired billionaire attending a game of the baseball team he’s owned for twenty years. Had Yamauchi had any interest in coming to the Tokyo Dome to see the Mariners’ first appearance in Japan, surely he’d have been able to sit in the seats of his choice, seats 99% of M’s fans could only dream of ever sitting in. And if he wanted to avoid having to talk to the media or mingling with the great unwashed, there were a few private luxury boxes that were empty at the games.
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.
But I digress. The March trip was my first visit 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 matchup—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 was a good thing for the home team in these games, Oakland, which finished last in the Majors in home attendance last season, averaging slightly more than 18,000 fans per game.
But the Japanese fans 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 the 2012 season.
Other things you won’t soon see here in the States: Fans at the Tokyo Dome are allowed to bring their own beverages, including beer, in to the stadium. Upon arrival, instead of confiscating your beer like they would at Safeco Field, 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 at Safeco, where fans aren’t even allowed to bring in their own bottled water because the Mariners want you to pay $4 for the privilege of drinking bottled water while watching another 90-loss team.
In Japan, if you want to buy the overpriced beer inside the stadium, you’ll get it served to you 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 U.S.
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, presumably to alert fans who might not be paying attention to get out of the way of batted balls.
Exhibition games the Mariners played against Kansai’s Hanshin Tigers and the Tokyo 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 Mariner, relief pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen, got in on the action, buying some Tigers gear and planting himself in the middle of the Hanshin cheering section for that team’s exhibition game against the A’s.
While the extra travel and jetlag might lead to a poor start to the 2012 season for the Mariners, as it has for most of the teams that have opened the season in Japan, it’s not like the M’s were expected to be contending this year anyway. This trip was great for the team’s players (especially Ichiro), the Japanese fans that attended the games, and the few M’s fans that made the long trip from Seattle.
As it turned out, the trip was a win-win on all fronts, except for the disturbing absence of Yamauchi. If the team’s owner can’t be bothered to attend games played in his own backyard, why should the team expect more fans to come to Safeco Field this year at ever-increasing ticket prices?