Japanese get Yankee education

Facing the Yankees was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some Japanese pros, but a nuisance for others.

Originally Published: March 31, 2004
By Mai Yoshikawa | Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- Alex Rodriguez admitted that the exhibition games between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers were not much more than "a good orientation for the two big games coming up," but the hosts took it more seriously.

For Japanese baseball fans, the opportunity to see the New York Yankees live in action without having to go through a 14-hour flight is more than a dream come true, and likewise for the players of their country it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"To me, it's not about festivity but a chance to learn. The Yankees seem like superhumans to me. These guys are born with talent. They're unbelievable, but I guess that's top level baseball for you," said Yomiuri infielder Toshihisa Nishi.

The first of two exhibition games -- the one against the Yankees -- was a good enough eye-opener for the Giants, often referred to as the "Yankees of Japan" because of their popularity and wealth. The Yankees won 7-1.

It made them feel less superior in power, a feeling they rarely experience when compared to other Japanese teams.

"It's an opportunity to show the Japanese players and fans that there's much more to baseball than we know. Our knowledge in Japan is limited, but what we see out there in MLB is the real thing," said Nishi.

"The event meant a lot to me and it was so much fun. Of course I wanted us to win, but more than that I wanted to take a careful look at each major leaguer and how they approach a game," said Yomiuri infielder Daisuke Motoki.

"I was especially impressed with (Derek) Jeter and his leadership as the captain. I could tell he was looking after his teammates. When he found out I injured my shoulder just like he did, he gave me a written copy of his rehabilitation program," Motoki said.

Hanshin catcher Ryo Asai literally got down on his knees and watched the Yankees batting practice from start to finish on both days.

"I was thrilled," Asai said with a big grin. "I know all my teammates were, too. Major leaguers are so big and muscular. I didn't play so I got to sit in the dugout and watch the games."

But of course, it's never an easy task to satisfy everybody and there were others who responded differently. With the Central League season opener just around the corner, some said this is not a good time for partying.

Not all Japanese players were in favor of hosting the MLB games at this time of the year, especially since that meant the Pacific League will open the season on the same day the Yankees and Devil Rays arrive in Japan.

On Kids Day Saturday, the Tokyo Dome stands were filled with over 40,000 children pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the major league superstars during their workout while three PL openers were being held at Fukuoka, Osaka and Saitama.

"I feel sorry for the PL players because they're starting their season and all the attention is on MLB. It's no wonder Japanese baseball is said to be in danger of losing fans," said Yomiuri right-hander Koji Uehara.

"I'm not even going to stay and watch my teammates in exhibition games because they're meaningless," said Uehara, who is set to start on Opening Day for the fifth straight year.

Uehara, an avid memorabilia collector, got his share of autographed goods when the major league All-Star team traveled to Japan in the fall of 2002. But this time, he says he's not so sure it will happen because the mood isn't as friendly.

"Nobody seems to be fooling around and I shouldn't be either. I would've liked to pitch against major leaguers at any other time but right now I have to focus on my job which is playing Japanese baseball, not MLB," he said.

The Giants and the Tigers, who go back a long ways as archrivals from the East and West, are gearing up for the season opener in which they face each other in a three-game series starting April 2 at Tokyo Dome.

Both teams kick off their 2004 seasons under new managers and the talk of the week will no doubt be who wins the series and who is simply better, the Giants of Tokyo or the Tigers of Osaka.

When the Tigers won their first CL championship in 18 years last season, they are said to have boosted the local economy by 50 billion yen ($420 million). With this in mind, it is only natural the players are taking their jobs more seriously than ever.

"I would've been able to enjoy the games a lot more if it were held at another time, even a week ago. The ideal of course would have been the offseason," said Hanshin outfielder Shinjiro Hiyama.

"It's hard not to think of this as a tuneup for our season opener. If you're talking about what's best for Japanese baseball I would say this is not the best time to hold this event," he said.

His teammate and newly appointed captain Makoto Imaoka admitted before the Devil Rays game that he did not know any of the names or faces of his opponents.

"I have my own set of problems to worry about right now so I can't afford to think about anything else. I haven't even had time to learn about who we're playing against," said Imaoka, who is dealing with a thumb injury.

Although it's true certain circumstances have prevented the Japanese players from throwing themselves over in excitement at being able to face the world's best, the bottom line is that there are obvious benefits from MLB's international exposure.

An American about to enter his fifth season in Japan, Hanshin infielder George Arias wrapped it all up by explaining that to say two MLB exhibition games will have a negative affect on a whole season is going too far.

''Fans may say all this takes away from Japanese baseball, but it's only two games we're talking about. It can't be that harmful. I mean, we still have 140 games to play,'' he said.

A-Rod described the situation as a no-brainer.

Said A-Rod: "The Yankees might come to Japan once every 30 years and because we're playing their own local teams here, I think you can't blame the fans. It's exciting for baseball. You got to give MLB a lot of credit for reaching out all the way to Japan. Hopefully someday some of the Japanese players come down to the U.S. and play us."

Mai Yoshikawa lives in Japan and covers sports for the International Department of Kyodo News based in Tokyo. She also served as the Japanese PA announcer for the Seattle Mariners in 2003.

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