Players say decision to cancel was the right one

Originally Published: March 18, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PEORIA, Ari. -- Even as the diplomatic situation worsened and the buildup to war increased over the past few weeks, the Mariners and Athletics still planned to go on with their scheduled season-opening series in Japan next week.

As late as Sunday, reporters were being briefed on what they should wear on the team fight and players were talking about how they would monitor the NCAA Tournament from Tokyo.

And then President Bush delivered his speech Monday night. Watching the president set a 48-hour deadline for war, Mariners club chairman Howard Lincoln said that he knew the trip would be cancelled.

He was right.

After consulting with the state department, the White House, security agencies and the players union, commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the Japan series Tuesday afternoon, one day before the two teams were to leave. The two teams had been scheduled to open the season with games in Tokyo on March 25 and 26, then return home and play two more games in Oakland April 1 and 2. The Japan games will be played April 3 and June 30 in Oakland instead.

"Given the uncertainty that exists throughout the world, we believe the safest course of action for the players involved and the many staff personnel who must work the games is to reschedule the opening series,'' Selig announced in a written statement. "It would be unfair and unsettling for them to be half a world away  away from their families  at this critical juncture.''

"I think it was the proper decision,'' Seattle general manager Pat Gillick said. "It would be very difficult for the players to be in Japan when we're possibly going be at war and they have one eye on the game and one eye on what they're families are going through back home. It's a similar situation to 9/11.''

The Mariners and Athletics will finish up the Cactus League season in Arizona, playing games that were scheduled under a contingency plan.

Seattle second baseman Bret Boone said he began sensing the trip was in jeopardy Monday afternoon when United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan announced he was pulling weapons inspectors out of Iraq. "That's when it kind of hit home,'' he said.

Boone said the players were concerned about the trip but "no one was adamant either way'' Tuesday morning when they arrived at the park but others were more worried. Seattle center fielder Mike Cameron decided that if the trip wasn't cancelled, he would keep his family at home. And he wasn't alone.

"It's just too crazy what's going on right now. I would have been worried about them the whole time,'' Cameron said. "I had a hard enough time to get my wife to come to Arizona, forget about Japan.''

For the players, the safety concerns were less about something going wrong in Japan, one of the safest countries in the world, but something happening here while the two teams were on the other side of the Pacific.

"You can't just open the door and be in Japan. You have to take the logistics into account,'' Ichiro said. "Japan is probably the safer place (compared to the United States) but getting from here to Japan is what you have to worry about.''

"The only thing I'm leery of is leaving my family and flying over there and then something happening on our soil,'' third baseman Jeff Cirillo said.

There also were issues with the appropriateness of sending baseball teams overseas to play games when the country was about to start bombing another nation. "That was a factor,'' Lincoln acknowledged.

The series was considerably more important to the Mariners than the Athletics. The Mariners are owned by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo, who has never seen his team play in person. They have three Japanese players, all their games are broadcast in Japan and thousands of Japanese tourists travel to Seattle to watch the Mariners each year. The club has a strong and important relationship with Japan, a great deal of work went into planning the two games and the organization was very much looking forward to this series.

"I think a lot of us are disappointed but I think we have to look at this with perspective," Lincoln said. "We all know what's going on in the world. The commissioner's decision was the right decision.

"We have to put this in context. There are more important things going on in the world.''

While Selig and union chief Donald Fehr said baseball intends to rescheduled a series in Japan as soon as next year, Lincoln said it is too early to discuss that. The talk had been of the Yankees opening next season in Japan next year, not the Mariners.

Seattle reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa said Japanese fans would be disappointed by the cancellation but would understand the circumstances. Said Ichiro: "I'm disappointed they won't be able to see all of the Mariners and watch the players they would enjoy.''

The cancellation forced the players to scramble. Almost all had arranged to return rental cars and leave hotels and condos this morning. Now they have to make other plans.

"Yeah, this jams us up,'' Boone said. "But as someone said today, if that's the worse we have to deal with, that ain't that bad.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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