The Big Kids Come Out To Play

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Baseball's opening day never smelled like this. Sure, Hall-of-Fame outfielder Hank Aaron threw out the first pitch while another legend, the gregarious "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, led the crowd in a less-than-rousing rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch. But there was no mistaking the pungent aroma of grilled eel and chicken teriyaki wafting from the stands. And when the players were presented with bouquets from a bevy of kimono-clad maidens, it was obvious that this was a whole new ball game.

The most parochial of American professional sports, Major League Baseball is going international in a big way. For the first time in 130 years, Opening Day festivities were held outside of North America, as the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs faced off last week in the Tokyo Dome. "We are now part of a global economy, and baseball needs to be a meaningful part of that world," says the league's commissioner, Bud Selig, who led the delegation to Tokyo. Baseball is hardly a stranger to the Japanese. In the late 19th century, American teacher Horace Wilson introduced the game to Japan; it has been a national obsession ever since. More than 100,000 fans watched last week's two-game series, many decked out in the uniforms of local heroes Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Mike Piazza of the Mets. The teams split the games, with the highlight an 11th-inning grand slam in game two by the Mets' Hawaiian-born Benny Agbayani, who celebrated by dining with another island native, sumo supremo Konishiki.

This isn't the first time North American professional sports have ventured afield. The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have already held season openers in Japan. But in the grand old game of baseball-America's so-called National Pastime-where change is measured in glacial increments, launching the league a world away is a revolutionary event. The game's opener has long been surrounded by an almost nationalistic aura. When possible, the U.S. President himself tosses out the first ball. Indeed, moving the ceremonies offshore disturbed a few traditionalists, including St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, who persuaded teammates to reject an invitation to play in Japan, opening the way for the Cubs. "When you initiate change you are going to have resistance," says Selig. "But this just makes the game stronger."

Despite the mini-controversy, the Cubs and Mets seemed thrilled to be in Japan. The players earned bonuses of $25,000 apiece to make the trip, which also included exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions. The Americans managed to squeeze in some local culture with trips to the Imperial Palace and shopping along the Ginza. Sosa even met Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. Said the ball player: "The Crown Prince told me everyone wanted to see me hit a home run."

For baseball fans in Japan, watching the homer-happy Americans was a welcome departure from the more subtle, tactic-laden local game. Many Japanese are knowledgeable about American baseball: U.S. sluggers have been playing in Japan's leagues since 1952, and pitcher Hideo Nomo's breakthrough season in 1995 with the Los Angeles Dodgers sparked a surge in interest in America's professional leagues. Last year, 45% of Major League Baseball's licensed merchandise sales outside of North America came from Japan.

In New York and Chicago, meanwhile, the games began in the wee hours of the morning, meaning most fans were fast asleep when the first season of the millennium got under way. Nevertheless, large-screen TVs were set up at New York's Penn Station so subway and rail commuters could watch the game, and in Chicago Harry Caray's restaurant opened for a breakfast buffet with the late broadcaster's wife Dutchie leading patrons in singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

For the visiting American officials, the mini-series sparked fresh talk of a baseball World Cup. "When you look at the diverse origins of players in the major leagues, it is inevitable at some point," says Selig. Currently, 40% of the 70,000 players under contract in American professional baseball are foreign-born. "It was a great event," Piazza said about the Tokyo games. "Opening Day is Opening Day, no matter where it is played." And who knows, in the not-too-distant future, the term World Series may become more than a misnomer.