Mariners, A's to start 2012 season in Japan
Pair of regular-season games scheduled for March 28-29
SEATTLE -- There'll be definite travel and timing challenges, but Mariners players expressed excitement on Wednesday about the opportunity to open next season in Japan with a pair of regular-season games against the A's.
Major League Baseball announced that the two clubs will face off in the Tokyo Dome on March 28-29, which means that 10-time All-Star right fielder Ichiro Suzuki will have the chance to play for the first time with the Mariners in his native land.
Ichiro addressed the situation briefly after the Mariners' final game on Wednesday, saying mostly that he wasn't ready to discuss the Tokyo trip.
"We just heard about that today," said Ichiro, who has one year remaining on his Mariners contract. "It's hard to think about how to look forward to that because we just finished our season now. We have a lot of time until that day. So we want to prepare and not say anything about Japan yet at this point."
His teammates, however, were already looking ahead to the journey to Japan.
"I think it'll be interesting," said first baseman Justin Smoak. "I've been out of the country before, but I've never been to Japan. It'll be a good experience for everybody, especially for Ichi to go back. I think it'll be a little crazy for him. It'll be an adventure for everybody."
The two teams will spend nine days in Japan during their normal Spring Training time -- playing two exhibition games against Japanese teams as well -- before returning to the United States to resume their Cactus League schedules and then kicking off their normal regular season on April 6 in Oakland.
"It's a great opportunity," said rookie second baseman Dustin Ackley. "I've never been there, but I've heard a lot of things about what a great place it is to visit. I'm sure they've got a lot of avid fans, especially with Ichiro being there. I think it'll be a cool thing to go do."
The two regular-season games in Tokyo will be counted as A's home games and will replace two later-season contests previously scheduled in Oakland on Sunday, April 8, and Thursday, July 5.
The Mariners' 81-game home schedule is not affected and they'll play their home opener on Friday, April 13, against the A's as previously announced.
Details are still being worked out, but the Mariners likely will report to Spring Training a week earlier than normal. They'll also face the situation of playing likely three or four Cactus League games back in Arizona between their regular-season games in Japan and the opening of the rest of their 2012 season.
"Obviously we're going to have to make some adjustments in Spring Training, but it's all good," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. "It should be exciting, a lot of fun. It'll be different, it'll be an experience. But we'll make the adjustments we need to make in regards to when we come into Spring Training, how we work up to Japan, how we work through it and then how we prepare to break camp as well."
The length of travel -- it's about a 12-hour flight from Phoenix to Tokyo -- concerns some players who wonder how long they'll have before games resume when they return. But as usual, they'll do whatever it takes to be ready to play.
"It's definitely not normal," Smoak said of playing two regular-season games before returning to Spring Training, "but at the same time, when you play a game you try to win it anyway. That's the mindset we'll take. We're not there for vacation, we're there to play and do our jobs."
As an organization, the Mariners are a natural for the trip given Ichiro's presence and an ownership group headed by Japan's Hiroshi Yamauchi, the founder of Nintendo.
"More Mariners games have been televised in Japan over the past 10 years than any other MLB team, so the fans there will be familiar with us," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "This will be a memorable experience for our players and our organization."
The Mariners were scheduled to open the 2003 season in Japan against the A's, but that trip was canceled at the last minute due to safety concerns and flight restrictions when the U.S. began military actions against Iraq the day before.
Bob Melvin, who was manager of the Mariners at that time, now is the A's skipper.
Mariners catcher Chris Gimenez, the team's assistant player representative, spoke with the team last week about the possibility of the trip to get feedback and explain the situation. While there were questions about the travel arrangements and the effect on the season, Gimenez said it would be a great opportunity for those on next year's team.
"We get to see it every day with Ichiro, but it'll be a chance to immerse ourselves in that culture and see what that place is all about," Gimenez said. "Especially in the wake of the tsunami and all that, it'll be important to help those fans -- just like for us in 9/11 -- to forget and get back to their everyday life and have something to look forward to."
The Mariners will fly from Phoenix to Tokyo on March 22. Details of the two exhibition games prior to the March 28-29 regular-season games have not yet been finalized.
This will be the fourth time that the Major League season has opened with a two-game series in Japan. Most recently, the Red Sox and A's played in the Tokyo Dome in 2008. The Yankees and Rays played there in '04 and the Mets and Cubs faced each other in the first Tokyo series in 2000.
Mariners closer David Aardsma was with the Red Sox when they went to Japan in '08, but he's currently on the disabled list and wasn't available for comment on Wednesday. The only other player who has made an international MLB regular-season trip is veteran reliever Jamey Wright, who was with the Rockies when they played the Padres in Monterrey, Mexico in 1999.
"It's a great opportunity to go over to Japan, and these guys should be fired up," said Wright, a pending free agent. "Hopefully I get a chance to go with them. I don't know if I'll be with them, but I'd love to do that. That could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."