History in the making

3/26/2004 - New York Yankees

The ball will be regulation size, and the distance from the mound to home plate will be still be 60 feet, 6 inches. But after setting foot in Japan this weekend, nothing else will feel quite the same.

First, there was the monstrous plane ride (7, 200 miles and 17 hours from Tampa to Tokyo, via Chicago), a new ballpark (the Tokyo Dome) and a new team (the Yomiuri Giants) to inaugurate this historic trip. The Yankees are playing their first-ever regular season games in the Far East, taking on the Devil Rays on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the team's hierarchy says there are compelling reasons for inviting the mother of all jet-lag hangovers.

"It's a great chance to grow the game internationally and expand our market. And that's good for the bottom line," is how Yankees general manager Brian Cashman put it. Indeed, there's money to be made on this trip -- not just for the Bombers, who are receiving a $40,000 per-man stipend -- but for the major leagues as a whole.

According to the New York Times, last year's telecasts of MLB games in Japan averaged 1.5 million viewers per game, up from 983,000 in 2002. And, because of satellite broadcasts, total viewership of the World Series in Japan went from 10.2 million in 2002 to 75 million in 2003. Such enthusiasm is why Japan accounts for 40 percent of MLB international revenues and why the Yankees' arrival has created a near-frenzy in Tokyo.

Tickets for the Tampa Bay games are completely sold out in the 55,000 seat Dome. So are the two exhibition contests the Bombers will play against Yomiuri, the Far East's equivalent of the big, bad monolith. The collision between the Yankees and Giants has drawn so much interest, formal ticket sales were suspended in favor of a lottery, and all available seats were gone in less than an hour.

None of this would've been possible, had the Mariners chosen to travel to Japan instead of the Yankees. Seattle was given first rights, since their trip with the A's was canceled in 2003 due to security concerns at the outset of the war in Iraq. Mariners officials declined this year's follow-up, allowing the Yankees to exploit their marketing-partnership with Yomiuri, and to show off their own Japanese star, Hideki Matsui.

Far all their marquee value -- from A-Rod to Derek Jeter to Joe Torre -- the Yankee know it's Matsui who'll be the center of attention in Tokyo. Jeter himself told reporters, "I'm curious to see how he handles all the attention."

As a whole, the Yankees regard this journey as part-baseball exercise and part-cultural windfall. Even though they'll be battling jet-lag, the Yankees will spend time touring the city, and have scheduled a visit to a nearby U.S. military base. The players will fly by Black Hawk helicopters for their visit with the servicemen.

No one would've blamed the Yankees for wanting to sleep in, at least for the first day or two. The physical surcharge of flying so far deeply concerned club officials, and trainers began transitioning players a week ago. That's when Tokyo-time clocks were posted in the Legends Field clubhouse, along with reminders about the dangers of in-flight dehydration.

Players were encouraged to drink at least 16 ounces of water for every hour in the air. Alcohol was not served and players who use contact lenses were forbidden from wearing them on the plane. Furthermore, everyone was prodded to stay awake for the last eight hours of the flight, so that upon arrival -- late Friday night, local time -- the first instinct would be to sleep and align the body-clock for a Saturday morning wake-up.

It's a huge price to pay, obviously, but the Yankees are marketing their logo, their attachment to Japanese culture through Matsui and, perhaps, their own history in the Far East. Even though American teams have been touring Japan since 1908, the Yankees created their own legacy in 1934.

That's when Babe Ruth was the player-manager of a barnstorming team that played 21 games against Japanese All-Stars -- the first 16 of which were so one-sided in the Americans' favor, the rosters were blended for the sake of better competition.

The star of the tour was The Babe himself, as he smacked 13 home runs, and was treated like an international celebrity. In his book "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life" author Robert Creamer wrote, "(Ruth's) reception in Tokyo was extraordinary ... he rode in an open car holding an American flag in one hand and a Japanese one in the other, while throngs in the streets waved American flags at him."

Even since then, the Yankees have been held in high regard by the Japanese baseball community. When Matsui first considered a career-move from the Yomiuri Giants to the major leagues, he said, "the Yankees were the only team that I really wanted to play for. That was my dream."

This weekend Matsui returns in pinstripes -- completing the arc of this storybook plot. In fact, it's a can't-miss opportunity for all parties, including the Devil Rays, who are being reimbursed by MLB for the revenue of two lost home dates at Tropicana Field.

Given this kind of build-up, is it conceivable the Yankees would agree to cope with the jet-lag -- next year, perhaps?

With jet-lag on his mind, Cashman smiled thinly and said, "I wouldn't go that far."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.