MLB says sayonara after memorable Japan trip
Opening Series a success for A's, Mariners as clubs head home
TOKYO -- Opening Series Japan 2012 came to a close when the Oakland A's earned a series split with a 4-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Thursday night.
The Tokyo Dome was quiet, the aisles were being swept up, and the players, club officials and Major League Baseball staffers who orchestrated another hugely successful venture overseas for the beginning of a season were readying themselves for the long flights back over the Pacific.
But while Japan's signature baseball stadium was empty, the emissaries of America's pastime were full of memories that will last forever -- snapshots of a whirlwind week that left everyone involved dizzy with excitement for the rest of the 162-game grind ahead, but also brimming with gratitude, pride, empathy and friendship.
Here are just a few of the images that will stay in the cameras, cell phones, hard drives and hearts of the MLB players, coaches, executives and families who made this incredible trip:
Minutes after two buses full of MLB traveling party members roll past the devastated site of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, in the once-vibrant and now-desolate city of Ishinomaki, the same buses pull up to the municipal baseball stadium, where hundreds of Little Leaguers, many of whom lost their parents, extended family members, homes and coaches, greet their A's and Mariners heroes with smiles as big as the entire island nation in which they live.
Two nights later in the Tokyo Dome, immediately preceding the first pitch of the 2012 regular season, the Jumbotron shows a video depicting the heroics of the late Taylor Anderson, an American teacher who perished in the tsunami of last March 11 but whose parents, Andy and Jean, are honoring her memory every day by raising funds to rebuild the area. Local volunteers Shinji Takai and Naho Hozumi, who have dedicated their lives to raising money and awareness through similar projects, are honored as well, and three Ishinomaki Little Leaguers, Sho Chiba, Haruka Kumagai and Ryuto Abe, beam in the interview room, answering questions about meeting real big leaguers for the first time.
The A's and Mariners are let loose in the streets and subways of Tokyo. A's general manager Billy Beane shakes hands with a fan in the Akasaka-mitsuke station as he's trying to negotiate the "Moneyball" to get on the right train. Mariners pitcher Blake Beavan struggles to find a garbage can for his morning coffee cup, amazed at the fact that the most populated metropolitan area in the world might also be the cleanest.
Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen wakes up the morning before Opening Day and heads out for a peaceful solo excursion to Senso-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple. After soaking in some of the Buddhist vibes, Wilhelmsen pitches two perfect innings and earns the first victory of the Major League season.
A's wives Amanda McCarthy (Brandon) and Kaycee Sogard (Eric), living it up on a sightseeing tour to the wooded, alpine Hakone region of Japan, take a gondola ride to the wind-blown side of a volcano, sample the grilled cuttlefish squid on a stick from a local vendor and soak in the glory of the crater lake called Ashi as they brave the fierce winds on an ornate, restored pirate ship.
Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak tells a U.S. Army pilot who flew members of the team to a nearby base for a troop visit that the trip out to the base was too calm, so the pilot goes ahead and makes the return ride a bit more bumpy. OK, a lot more bumpy. "We were up, down, sideways," Smoak said, giddy with laughter and adrenaline. "I thought we were going to go backwards. I could have sworn we were going to go upside down."
While on their own military visit to a nearby Air Force base, several A's players are given a 40-minute scenic tour of the sprawling Tokyo area, during which the clouds clear out and Jemile Weeks, Jerry Blevins, Jonny Gomes, Cliff Pennington, Josh Reddick, Brian Fuentes, Collin Cowgill and Seth Smith can see the coastline, the famous Buddha statue in Kamakura and snow-covered Mt. Fuji.
Mariners players Michael Saunders and Japanese infielder Munenori Kawasaki hold court in the MLB Café Tokyo during an afternoon autograph-signing session, and Saunders urges Kawasaki to read off the winning raffle numbers ... in English.
A's catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is of Japanese descent, homers twice in exhibition games and then meets distant relatives for the first time before playing his first game of the big league season.
Ichiro is everywhere. Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, an icon in his homeland, is greeted with popping flashbulbs, oohs and aahs, and raucous applause every time he comes to the plate and every time he's shown on the video screen. He socializes with fans while warming up. His image looms over the left-field bleachers in the form of an enormous billboard for Kirin beer. He speaks of how much this visit, 12 years into his storied Major League career, means in his heart. And then he does what Ichiro does: he goes 4-for-5 in his team's first game.
The man who now bats before Ichiro, Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley, hits a solo shot early on Opening Day and realizes in the dugout that at that moment he is "leading the Major Leagues in home runs."
Players and representatives from both teams can't stop talking about the shopping, the karaoke clubs, the neon lights, the controlled chaos at the busiest intersection in the world at Shibuya Crossing, plus the food, which included a 450-pound tuna that was cut open fresh at the hotel reception and served to the delight of hundreds, including Ichiro.
And for Brendan Ryan, the Mariners' shortstop, two moments that will surely stand out for the rest of his life: turning 30, and then, a few days later, at sunset, taking his longtime girlfriend, Sharyn, up to the Sky Deck on the 90th floor of Mori Tower, one of Tokyo's tallest buildings, and popping the question. In Japanese.
Sharyn said the word that needs to continue to be uttered every time Major League Baseball has the opportunity to put on events like this: yes.
"It's great to be able to come out here and experience culture and play baseball in a country where baseball is so loved and the people are so appreciative of it," Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins said. "To see the way the culture here mixes the old with the new and to see the way everyone responds to baseball, it's amazing to see."
Added A's outfielder Coco Crisp: "To be out here, not only for the experience for myself but to be involved with the experience of everybody else, whether it's the Little Leaguers [from Ishinomaki] or the people that have been affected by the events that happened out here ... and to be able to put a smile on peoples' faces, it makes you feel good.
"There's the small thing, with baseball, and there's the larger aspect of it when you step outside the dome and do things that kind of bring a light to peoples' lives, even if it's just for a moment."
So sayonara, Japan. Hopefully MLB will be back very soon.