Commentary

A's show their fighting spirit, leave Japan with series split

Originally Published: March 26, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

"It is the soft and juicy handmade hamburg steak which shut up the taste of beef. Since you plan an order, it is the hamburg steak of the boast roasted carefully. The dish which put and made the heart -- the time of one [pleasant at Vicky's] … pleasing."

-- A sign posted outside Vicky's Restaurant at the Tokyo Dome

TOKYO -- There are many " time of one pleasing" aspects to playing in Japan. For one thing, Oakland starter Rich Harden says, the fans are passionate, supportive and so unfailingly polite that they would never ever consider yelling, "You suck, Harden!!!"

And even if they did, he wouldn't be able to understand them, which is also a pleasing benefit.

Another plus is they occasionally hand out honors such as the storied Fighting Spirit Award, a 500,000 yen (about $5,000) prize that Harden received as the winning pitcher Wednesday when the Athletics beat the Red Sox in the second and final game of their season-opening series in Japan. "Fighting Spirit Award" has a great ring to it and is certainly better than the alternative "Runner-up MVP." Oakland outfielder Emil Brown won the MVP award -- and the golf tournament-sized check for 1 million yen (about $10,000) that went with it.

[+] EnlargeEmil Brown
Kyodo via AP ImagesCheck, please! Emil Brown belted a three-run homer in the third inning against Jon Lester.
"They told me and I was like, what are you talking about?" said Brown, who hit a three-run homer in the 5-1 victory. "They said, 'You get a printer and a check for $10,000.' And I'm like, 'OK. Where's the check?'"

Brown said he doesn't have much need for a printer but was interested in bringing back something else from his trip. "The toilets are the best. Do we have those [in the States]? They are way ahead of us as far as that sort of thing."

After spending a week in Tokyo experiencing the food, the culture, the fans, the language and the toilets, the two teams raced out of the stadium following the game to catch their waiting charter flights home. Through the wonder of jet travel, prevailing tailwinds, time zones and datelines, the Athletics should arrive on the West Coast at 5 p.m. Wednesday, which is two full hours earlier than the game began here (the Red Sox are scheduled to land about 90 minutes later in Los Angeles).

The two clubs then will have almost a week before resuming the regular season and this series in Oakland on Tuesday. In between, the Athletics will have two off days and three exhibition games against the Giants. The Red Sox will play one game in front of an expected crowd of 110,000 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum, two games at Dodger Stadium and have two off days, one in Los Angeles and one in Oakland.

It's an interesting way to open a season, that's for sure.

"When I was in the press conference, I was like, 'Yeah, it is the opening of the season,'" Brown said. "It hadn't really set in yet because we have to go back and play some exhibition games. But it was beginning to set in a little bit during the press conference with the cameras and everything."

"It felt different," Harden said. "Opening the season always feels big, but just being in Japan, with the fans and seeing how passionate they are, it was an amazing experience. It almost felt like a playoff game. It was just different."

Tuesday's opener had an enormous national focus on Daisuke Matsuzaka in his return to Japan, but it was Harden who had the best game by any pitcher this series. In the best performance by a tourist in Japan since Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation," Harden struck out nine, gave up one run -- a homer to Manny Ramirez -- and faced two batters over the minimum in six innings. "He deserved the Fighting Spirit Award," catcher Kurt Suzuki declared seconds after being informed that there was such a thing.

[+] EnlargeRich Harden
Junko Kimura/Getty ImagesRich Harden allowed three hits over six innings, striking out nine and walking three.
Oakland was the official home team for the series -- the Athletics will receive at least as much money, and possibly more for playing here than they would have for playing the games in Oakland -- but in another demonstration that Red Sox Nation really has to strengthen its emigration laws, the Tokyo Dome was filled with fans in Boston shirts and jerseys while the speakers blared team anthems "Sweet Caroline" and "Shipping Up to Boston" at their usual times. "It felt like we were playing in Fenway Park," Oakland reliever Justin Duchscherer said.

"We're used to that," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. "We play second fiddle to the Giants in the Bay Area. That's just part of the deal. But it's like that for Boston everywhere they play except in New York."

Beane was so enthusiastic about the trip that he not only wants to play another one, it's a wonder he even got on the plane back to California. "If they're planning another series here in two years, put us at the top of the list," Beane said. "This was really special. I would come back here on my own. I really would."

Obviously overwhelmed by "the boast roasted carefully" and the "time of one pleasing" they had in Japan, Harden and other players expressed similar thoughts -- or perhaps they were just happy about the $40,000 bonus each received for playing. This was the third time the major league season opened in Japan and while MLB intends to play another series again here sometime, possibly with the Mariners, nothing is scheduled yet. A more intriguing question is whether there might come a day when MLB expands and plays games here throughout the regular season.

"I think it would be interesting," Harden said. "It's very exciting to have the opportunity to come here and see the passion for the game they have. I don't know how it would work because there's just so much to deal with as far as the time change and the jet leg. It's such an adjustment. But it would be interesting."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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