For the fourth time, the Major League Baseball season began in Japan at the Tokyo Dome. This year, the Seattle Mariners took on the Oakland Athletics, who were making their second consecutive appearance after playing Boston in 2008. Prior to that, it was the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets who got things started in 2000, and the Yankees and Rays followed up in 2004. This year was special though, as Mariners' star right fielder Ichiro Suzuki would be playing his first meaningful MLB games in his home country. Tickets were a hot commodity and buyers had to enter a lottery in February for a chance to win tickets before they went on sale to the general public. This Stadium Journey Correspondent was fortunate to win a pair of seats and hereby offer a summary of the experience.
Gates opened three hours before game time, but the Dome was still relatively empty until just a few minutes before first pitch as most fans were arriving from work. Outside, souvenir stands were doing brisk business, with another AL West team getting much of the attention, namely the Texas Rangers who signed Japanese phenom Yu Darvish in the off season. Many of the items were sold out well before the game started, attesting to the popularity of MLB here in Japan.
Entering the stadium required an understanding of the Japanese mindset. As this was an MLB game, extra security precautions were required. First, a small plastic bag was handed out and all fans were instructed to place metal objects into this plastic bag before going through the metal detector. Of course, carrying two cameras, binoculars, and a cell phone, there was no way everything would fit into the tiny bag, but it didn't matter. At the gate, my knapsack was scanned by an earnest young man who asked permission to use his white-gloved hands to check the belongings. The check was cursory at best, more to ensure that I did not have any cans or bottles rather than anything dangerous.
I had chosen the line that bypassed the metal detector; instead I was greeted by a cute young lady who politely inquired if she could wand me. I avoided any indelicate replies about who could wand who and allowed her to perform another check. Interestingly, she only scanned my body and not the knapsack, finding nothing of interest and allowing me to finally enter the Tokyo Dome.
My seat was far down the right field line, in the 8th row of the upper deck. Despite being about 400 feet away, we were duly warned before the game to be aware of foul balls coming our way. If you were to be hit by a foul ball sitting this far from the plate, you deserve your injuries, but regardless, no fouls came remotely close to us. Another example of the Japanese overprotective nature, and during the game, every foul ball was followed by a warning to keep on the lookout for batted balls.
As game time approached, Amy and Joe Franz, Seattle season ticket holders and inventors of the Ichimeter, were shown on the big screen to much applause. They are probably more famous here than most of the Oakland Athletics players.
The pre-game ceremony was focused on Tomodachi, a new initiative that is designed to deepen relations between the US and Japan after the 2011 disasters. The US Army Band from nearby Camp Zama marched onto the field and a large flag for each nation was unfurled.
Lights were dimmed and there was a lengthy video dedicated to three heroes from March 11, including Taylor Anderson, an American teacher who lost her life in the tsunami after ensuring that her students were safe. Derek Jeter, Bobby Valentine, and Cal Ripken Jr. each narrated one story, but the acoustics in the dome were not good and so I could not hear the particulars of each story. Anderson's parents were on hand with the other two heroes who all participated in the first pitch ceremony.
When the home-team Athletics took the field, they were joined by some young baseball all-stars from the Tohoku region. After that, the national anthems were sung, with famous actor/singer Ryotaro Sugi performing Kimi Ga Yo much to the surprise of the locals, who gasped when his name was announced.
With the ceremonies complete, it was time for the baseball season to start. Brandon McCarthy took the mound for the A's and at 7:08 local time and threw a called strike to Chone Figgins. Two batters later, Ichiro approached the plate and the crowd erupted with a long ovation. It is difficult to overstate just how much of an icon he is here in Japan; he is the most successful athlete to have played overseas and a great source of pride for Japanese people. Every pitch to him saw thousands of flashbulbs going off. He was not distracted in the least, knocking an infield single off of McCarthy's glove.
I'll avoid a detailed recap here. It was a great game that the Mariners won 3-1 in 11 innings with Ichiro going 4/5 and adding the insurance RBI. Good pitching and aggressive hitting meant no walks were issued and the entire affair took just over three hours (3:04). Although the locals were focused on Ichiro's achievements, other baseball fans were interested to see how Oakland rookie Yoenis Cespedes fared in his first MLB action. Mixed reviews on his first game, as he smashed a double in 3 at-bats, while striking out twice (although he homered in the following contest). Seattle DH Jesus Montero, acquired from the Yankees in the off-season, was 0 for 4.
Seeing MLB in Japan is truly a unique experience. It is entirely different from watching a game in the States. Fans here really don't know much about the teams or players other than the Japanese ones. There were a few fans wearing Mariners colors but most were dressed in work clothes, including many men in suits. There are colorful beer girls that dot the aisles and whiskey and shochu are also available, as well as Coke and Pepsi, all delivered with a smile. You'd best avoid the typical hot dog here (truly horrid) and try a Japanese bento box instead.
Compared to a normally loud NPB game where each team has an organized cheering section in the outfield, the Dome was deathly quiet at times as fans here generally don't cheer much when not part of a larger group. Certainly when Ichiro was at bat or on the basepaths, there was a palpable excitement in the air but for other batters, a quiet indifference. After Ichiro's last at bat, many fans left because it was getting late and a long train ride awaited many. There was a 7th inning stretch but nobody stood as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" played, because it is not a tradition here. There were a couple of big-screen distractions such as the mascot race, but no on-field promotions.
Things moved much quicker than a typical Japanese ballgame, which is played at a slower pace, with the average 9-inning game taking 3:06 to complete. Japanese pitchers nibble and hitters generally go deeper in the count, and there is more posturing between pitches. The MLB game saw two aces throwing their best stuff and many hitters swinging at the first pitch, something that is uncommon in the NPB.
Overall, this is an experience that all baseball fans should try to accomplish once in their lifetime. With the NPB season opening the day after, you can really appreciate all the differences between the two games. Of course, MLB only schedules these events every four years, but I'll bet we'll be seeing Darvish's Rangers here in 2016 if not earlier. Keep it in mind for a future springtime vacation!