Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Tradition in the making?
By Mai Yoshikawa
Special to ESPN.com
TOKYO -- Regardless of the extremely tight schedule, a 14-hour time difference and all the hype surrounding Hideki Matsui's homecoming, for most players on the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays the experience to start their season in Tokyo was a valuable one.
The Yankees salvaged a split in the two-game series at the Tokyo Dome with a 12-1 victory Wednesday.
Tampa Bay was the "home" team for both games, but that's not how if felt to Tino Martinez.
"It was definitely a Yankee crowd here," said Martinez, a former Yankee and Tampa native. "To be able to start off the season here is different but exciting. It's a change of pace from what we're used to."
Both Martinez and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said they would like to return to the Land of the Rising Sun some day. For Rivera, it was children. For Martinez, it was food.
"I'm ready to go home, but it was a great trip and I loved it. The best thing was coming here and seeing the kids and having the chance to talk to them," Rivera said.
"I didn't get to go sightseeing, but I liked the restaurants. The food's great. I like Japanese food -- sushi, rice, teriyaki chicken. I like how they cook it in front of you," said Martinez.
Mike Mussina, who failed to post his career 200th win on Tuesday, was one person who wasn't as enthusiastic about the whole trip.
"I didn't eat any Oriental food. It's hard for me because I have to go out and perform on a high level even when I'm not eating and sleeping (at normal times)," he said.
Like it or not, the players better get used to traveling overseas because Major League Baseball's international exposure plan is just getting started.
Commissioner Bud Selig plans to make the tour to Japan a regular event. Fortunately, players understand how important it is to spread the sport globally.
"This is good for baseball. It's what baseball is all about. Giving the Japanese players an opportunity to come back here and play in front of their home fans. All of us were aware of how big Matsui was before we got here but it just threw us back when we saw it with our own eyes," said Gary Sheffield.
The capacity crowd at Tokyo Dome, normally quiet between innings, went so wild just seeing Matsui walk around in his Yankees pinstripes that Kenny Lofton almost forgot the season got under way.
"It didn't feel the same. It might have been because the excitement was there, but it was all for Matsui. It's good for him but the feel of Opening Day on one side or the other as in Tampa Bay or New York wasn't there," said Lofton.
"But overall, I'm happy to have gotten the chance to experience Japan. I had a good time and it was something that I would want to do again. I'd want to come just to relax and hang out but for another season opener, I don't know. The time difference can be a little tough," Lofton said.
Although many players and coaches complained that the tour was physically demanding, the adjustment was obviously not a problem for Matsui, who rose to the occasion and hit a dramatic two-run homer for the Yankees in Wednesday's 12-1 win as the two teams split the series.
Said Matsui: "I don't think it really matters where you start a season. I'm still playing with the same teammates. I never imagined that I'll play in Japan as a Yankee and I feel very lucky. I feel like I've gotten off to a great start to a new season."
"It happened in Japan for a reason. I'd like to come back, but hopefully next time it will be in the offseason. Then you're not as serious about the event and you can enjoy it, reflecting on everything that's around you and not just letting it pass you by."
-- Gary Sheffield
"For the first few days it was pretty tough because you can't sleep at night and you're tired during the day, but once you get to the game and the fans are making noise it gets you pumped up and you forget about being tired. I'll absolutely come back if I'm asked again."
-- Tino Martinez
"Matsui is the center of everything here, but it's understanding seeing his performance. His home run was amazing. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity because who knows when the Yankees will be back again."
-- Alex Rodriguez
"The tour was well done and I certainly would like to come back. We were probably busier than we wanted to be, but I think the players as a whole enjoyed it and were curious at how much they love the game here. The respect factor is so big here."
-- Joe Torre
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.