Recap - Mariners 5, A's 4
Even though I have seen a game at all active MLB host venues, my goal is to attend a regular season game regardless of where it’s played – even if that means travelling to the other side of the world.
There have been international exhibition MLB games as far back as the 1930s. American All-Star teams that included Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Charlie Gehringer used to come to Japan and play often taking on the local teams.
The Japanese (Nippon) Professional Baseball League has been in existence since 1936 and has constantly grown in popularity ever since. Unlike in the U.S., baseball is the most popular spectator sport in Japan with many of its stars enjoying celebrity status having their images plastered everywhere endorsing products from whiskey to cars to high-end watches.
Starting in 1995 with Hideo Nomo, there have been a number of big star Japanese league players who have made the jump to the MLB for big buck contracts including Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani. Many of these players have had great success in the MLB, but none more so than Ichiro Suzuki , who had a long and remarkable career in the MLB after several years as an established star here in Japan. A big part of the thrill of today’s experience will be getting to see Ichiro play, for one final time, in front of his fellow countrymen and devoted fans.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel quite a bit internationally for my job over the years – but as much as I’ve longed to go – I have never been to Asia. I decided to make this a very memorable trip by extending this trip to 2 weeks and adding in some stops before ending in Tokyo for the game.
This has been one of the most memorable and eventful two weeks of my life, starting with a 12 days ago with a 16-hour non-stop flight from Newark to Hong King. After a few wonderful days in Hong Kong, I made my way to Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul, Kyoto and finally here. Some of the amazing highlights of this trip include going to see Great Wall of China, The incredible markets and street food of Seoul and Bangkok, cycling through the streets of Beijing over to Jingshan Park and Tiananmen Square, visiting all of the amazing Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, walking through the Bamboo forests in Kyoto and the wonderful people I met along the way. Two days ago, I took the world’s fastest train from Kyoto to Tokyo, which I have to say has been my favorite city on this trip.
Every aspect of this city is fascinating to me. The people are remarkably polite and friendly, everything is so clean and operates so efficiently, the architecture, food, culture, etc. are just simply fascinating.
I’ve tried to see as much of the city in my few days here, but you’d need weeks to really take it all in. Some of my favorites were the amazing Shibuya Crossing , seeing the giant pandas at the zoo in Ueno Park, the shopping district at Ginza, the Imperial Palace, going to the famous Tsukiji Fish market at 8 AM, which was already crowded, and having some amazing sushi for breakfast, Takeshita Street, eating those amazing fluffy Japanese pancakes, the Asakusa district
which had an atmosphere of old Tokyo, etc. Even my hotel room in Ginza was pretty special, with the complimentary silk pajamas and slippers and the cool high-tech toilet.
Throughout most of the places I visited on this trip, 7-11s are very prevalent, but they are so unlike the ones we are used to in the US. They are spotless clean and have a wide variety of amazing prepared food offerings as well as treats. It’s not uncommon for locals to have lunch or even dinner at a 7-11. The Japanese also have an odd obsession with Kit-Kats as there are no less than a few dozen varieties available at any given time (including my favorite – Matcha Tea) and probably hundreds of varieties offered over the years (in Seoul, I noticed a similar obsession with Spam).
So, today was my final full day on this trip. I tried to get tickets for last night’s opening game by getting access to advance sales through the Oakland A’s fan club, but they sold out within an hour of going on sale. But, I was able to get a great seat for reasonable price for the 2nd game. Little did I know what a blessing that would be, as it turned out to be the great Ichiro’s final game in baseball.
After a very long day, I left my hotel and hopped on the Ginza subway line to head out to Tokyo Dome. The subway system in Tokyo is by far the best I’ve ever seen – easy to follow, clean, well-lit and extremely reliable. When the train pulls into the station and the doors open, chimes play a tune and every subway station in Tokyo has their own unique tune. The Korakuen Station was my stop for the stadium which took about 15 minutes.
Tokyo Dome is in Bunkyo District of, Tokyo and opened in March of 1988. It has a maximum total capacity of 57,000. Its original nickname was "The Big Egg" due to its dome-shaped roof is an air-supported structure, a flexible membrane supported by slightly pressurizing the inside of the stadium.
Tokyo Dome is part of a greater entertainment complex known as Tokyo Dome City, built of the grounds of the former Tokyo Dome City includes an amusement park includes a roller coaster named Thunder Dolphin and a hubless Ferris wheel. The grounds also have an onsen called Spa LaQua, various shops, restaurants, video game centers. The surrounding neighborhood has lots of shops and restaurants, many of which seemed more international than other parts of the city.
The Tokyo Dome has held various Major League Baseball games to open the seasons, with the first series being a two-game slate between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets in 2000. The games this year are the first being hosted in Japan in 7 years and the fifth time overall being held here.
There was a capacity crowd at the game with a lot of American tourists but mainly locals. Outside the stadium there was plenty of activity with vendors selling food and souvenirs. Getting through the gates and finding my seat was a little confusing, but not too bad. Park reminded me of Tropicana Field with its white ceiling, artificial turf and complete lack of natural light.
There was lots of fanfare before the game with several ex major leaguers on hand including “The Kid” – Ken Griffey Jr. Both the Japanese and American anthems were played before the game and PA announcements in Japanese and English. Despite mostly locals in attendance, I was lucky enough to have a set next to a couple of businessmen from Northern California who were big A’s fans
For the most part, the crowd seemed subdued. I was expecting more enthusiasm, but from what I heard, if it is a Japanese league game, the teams and the players have more of a connection to the fans and there is much more emotion. But always respectful from what I understand, unlike many American fans. The exception to their subdued emotions was whenever Ichiro was involved in any way. Any time a ball was hit in his direction – fair or foul, the crowd would erupt. They were particularly enthusiastic whenever he came up to the plate.
There weren’t a lot of special features that I noticed at the park, except for a lot of displays for the home team Yomiuri Giants. There was a pretty big enclosed room on the main level for smokers. The room had glass walls (as if the smokers were some kind of zoo exhibit) and was really crowded with folks enjoying their cigarettes in a large cloud of tobacco smoke. The odd thing is that despite a large part of the population in Tokyo constantly wear an air filter mask due to the general poor air quality, many of them are smokers as well.
The food choices were mostly locally favored items – Bento Boxes, fish, yakitori,etc. – although they has something called ‘ballpark dogs’ which closely resembled an American hot dog. There was a Shake Shack on premises on the main level that was accessible to fans both inside on outside of the stadium.
The beer vendors that worked the aisles during the game were all Japanese women in their early 20’s wearing schoolgirl outfits, carrying backpack mounter cannisters of locals beers Sapporo, Asahai and Tsingtao.
Without doubt, Ichiro was the main attraction of this game and the person that the entire crowd on hand and fans across Japan were watching, but in addition, the Mariners starting pitcher was another former Japanese league start making his MLB debut - Yusei Kikuchi.
Kikuchi was solid in his debut going 4 2/3 innings giving up only 4 hits and one run departing with the lead thanks to HRs by Ryon Healy and Mitch Haniger. The A’s came back to tie the game in the bottom of the 7th which needed extra frames to be decided. In the top of the 12th, Domingo Santana grounded into a run scoring force play and for the second straight night, Mariners closer Hunter Strickland got the final three outs for the save.
Ichiro ended up going 0-4 on the night which didn’t seem to upset the fans at all. After he trotted out to right field to start the inning, he was taken out of the game in the bottom of the eighth to a thunderous ovation and tears from 46,451 fans.
So, tomorrow this wonderful trip of mine comes to an end as I am flying back to NJ in the afternoon.
This amazing trip has provided me with a lifetime of wonderful memories.
Next up for me in June is the Royals vs the Tigers in the first ever MLB game played in Omaha, Nebraska.