Commentary

MLB in Tokyo: Will anyone notice?

It's difficult to find the sense in the A's and the Mariners opening in Japan

Originally Published: March 28, 2012
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball has just the thing for all you West Coast fans who've been itching to watch some pre-dawn games: A's-Mariners, from Japan, starting Wednesday at 3:10 a.m PT. And, as Bud Selig is fond of saying, this time it counts.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaIchiro certainly will be a drawing card. But how interested are Japanese fans in, say, Seth Smith?

This is how your 2012 big league season begins: In the middle of the night on a Wednesday in March, thousands of miles away, in a game between two bad teams playing in a dome, on fake grass, before a crowd that couldn't care less. It's a far cry from the traditional day game in Cincinnati, a tradition that went away so long ago it's almost embarrassing to admit to remembering it.

But there's marketing and merchandising to be done, which apparently means Japan, and definitely means this year's Opening Day is more like Opening Morning, with the Mariners and A's, no less. If that isn't enough to get you out of bed to celebrate the late innings with cereal and beer -- oatmeal pairs well with a nice oatmeal stout -- then there's not much we can do for you at this point.

Except ask a pertinent question: Outside of giving Japanese fans a chance to cheer Ichiro one more time, what's the point of this exercise?

Let's amend that question, since Japanese fans have had the opportunity to cheer and appreciate Ichiro over the last few days as they watch him play games against Japanese professional teams: Why did the A's have to be dragged into this?

Both teams have played exhibition games against Japanese teams, and that works for everyone -- the Japanese teams, their fans and MLB, which gets to parade Ichiro around as a traveling salesman for jerseys and caps.

In fact, if the Japanese league is interested in returning the favor and sending two of its teams our way, here's my two cents: I'd rather pay to see the Yomiuri Giants play the Oakland A's in an exhibition than pay to see the Yomiuri Giants play the Yakult Swallows, even if it was Opening Day for both teams. I'm guessing most Japanese fans feel the same way. There is an admirable philanthropic angle to the trip -- MLB is helping with tsunami relief -- but do Japanese fans really care if these games count in the standings?

Using regular-season games to export our major professional sports is an idea that has come and gone. MLB has done it before, of course, in Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The NFL has used London as the European satellite for its International Series. The players aren't fond of it (rarely, if ever, a Roger Goodell consideration), but you can't argue with the attendance and the attention. It doesn't matter that watching an NFL game on television from Wembley Stadium is like watching a foreign movie with bad dubbing. Many of the fans don't know when to cheer, and those are the ones who are paying attention.

The NFL opens its season with customary bloated fanfare: a showcase Thursday night matchup, live performances by headline acts, cameras zooming overhead like birds of prey. And baseball will start in a dome in Japan, at 3 a.m. in the home cities. It's strictly BYOB. (Bring your own bunting.)

But, you might ask, who cares about the Mariners and the A's? They could start their seasons in Sardinia for all the national attention they'd get if they started along with everybody else. That's part of the point: The non-status of these two teams makes it easier for MLB to ship them off to play under even less scrutiny than they'd receive if they opened in front of the tarps in Oakland. (It's harder to imagine MLB taking two of the Phillies' first three home games against the Marlins and plopping them in Japan.) It's a good bet the second-day attendance in Japan will far exceed the second-day attendance the A's, who are designated as the home team for this week's two games in Tokyo, will attract for the game after their real home opener. That actually will be an interesting comparison, since the A's first home series in Oakland's O.co Coliseum is also against the Mariners.

[+] EnlargeMelvin
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye The A's Bob Melvin exchanged bouquets with the Yomiuri Giants' Tatsunori Hara before an exhbition game. Stateside viewers will have to get up pretty early in the morning to smell the Opening Day flowers.

(It's worth mentioning, perhaps gratuitously, that Seattle's principal owner has never seen his team play in person. Retired Nintendo mogul Hiroshi Yamauchi apparently has no intention of changing that, either, even though the Mariners will be playing two hours from his Kyoto home. He's owned a majority of the team for 20 years, which means if he didn't feel compelled to watch the 2001 team win 116 games, he's probably in no hurry to watch Chone Figgins and Mike Carp.)

None of this touches on the worst part of A's-Mariners Japan '12 Tour: Both teams return home at the end of the week to resume exhibition games. How's that for backward thinking? How's that for devaluing the start of your regular season? These two teams are going to start their regular season, then go back to not starting their regular season before resuming their regular season.

But for now, the most important day is Opening Day. Or Morning. Or Night. Breakfast -- or late-night snack, you choose -- with Bob Melvin and Eric Wedge. Set your alarm.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com