The Magical Mystery Tour

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TIM NOONAN TokyoNature be damned. The most charmed American baseball season in recent memory arrived in Japan this month, and despite November's chill and the sterile confines of the country's domed stadiums, baseball's summer of love was still in full bloom. Led by Sammy Sosa, the Chicago Cubs outfielder who, together with Mark McGwire, dazzled U.S. fans this year in a dramatic home-run shootout, 28 of America's finest players invaded Japan for eight exhibition games in Tokyo, Fukuoka and Osaka.American baseball teams have been touring Japan since 1908 and have featured such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. But this year, it was Sosa who really wowed 'em. Though his 66 homers fell four short of McGwire's final tally, both men obliterated Roger Maris' 61 in '61, a mark that had stood as one of America's most hallowed sports records. From the moment his plane touched down on Asian soil, Sammy's Japan Adventure became an orgy of adulation, flashbulbs and inane questions. Would he be able to hit as many dingers in the eight games as he did in America this year? I hope to do well, said the Dominican Republic native in obvious exasperation. But I think 66 home runs might be a bit much to expect.In a storybook scene befitting his storybook season, Sosa was welcomed with a minute-long ovation at the Tokyo Dome when he came to bat for the first time in the opening game. The best pitch he saw from Yomiuri Giants pitcher Yusaku Iriki was a fastball up around his eyes. Close enough. He swung late and drove it over the fence for an opposite-field home run, setting off bedlam in the stands. As he approached the dugout, Sammy honored the moment, and the setting, by stopping to bow in three different directions. Sosa also provided another classic East-meets-West moment. Asked if he had heard of Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hideki Matsui (a slugger who could reasonably be called Japan's Sosa), Sammy replied in less-than-diplomatic fashion: I've never met Mr. What's His Name, but I am looking forward to it. Mr. What's His Name was far more gracious. Yes, I know him very much, said Matsui. I always enjoy playing against the major leaguers because it gives us an opportunity to measure our skills against the best.If America's season was a celebration of long balls and feverish assaults on sacred slugging records, Japan's was characteristically more subtle. Only five players racked up more than 30 homers. But fans cheered for the base-running daring and defensive flair of players like Orix Blue Wave outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who stole 43 bases this season.PAGE 1  |  
As North American baseball franchises make a conscientious effort to return to more bucolic--and revenue-friendly--stadiums, their Japanese counterparts are erecting covered monstrosities that mirror the local style of play: practical and lacking in aesthetics. Mercurial, tactical and selfless, the Japanese version of the game has long amused, and irritated, American players. It's not baseball, U.S. slugger Reggie Smith once snorted. It only looks that way. True to form, the Japanese all stars hit lightly but stole an impressive 12 bases in the first three games against the Americans. By last Friday, the series was 3-2 in favor of the visitors.While all of Japan seemed to focus on Sosa, the Americans had their eye on a local star: the Blue Wave's gifted Suzuki. His frame may be slight and his manner unassuming, but there is little about the outfielder that is not major league. Perhaps the most recognizable face in Japan, Suzuki could soon become a fixture in the U.S. Thanks to the success of exports like Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, the notion of Japanese players in the North American major leagues is no longer alien. But Americans won't take Japanese talent seriously until someone other than a pitcher makes the grade. A number of the visiting Americans thought Suzuki could be the first everyday player to break through. I think Ichiro is ready now, said Seattle Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer, after facing the 25-year-old phenom. He has a great batting eye, and I'm not sure I've seen anyone in the majors quicker from home to first base than him. Photogenic and engaging, Suzuki has won five batting titles and three most valuable player awards in his first five seasons. Defensively, one major league scout said, his speed and rifle-like throwing arm would put him among the top three or four outfielders in North America.Would Suzuki jump? There's little left for him to accomplish in Japan. And the intense media scrutiny to which he is constantly exposed could hasten his departure. Of course I would like to try to play in America, but it basically depends on my bosses letting me, says Suzuki. In Japanese baseball, a player is bound to his club for the first nine years of his career, but few expect the slim prodigy to stay put for four more years. Rumors are flying that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will try for Suzuki if the Yanks lose their current centerfielder, Bernie Williams, to free agency. Suzuki is already considering options. What is important to me is choosing a city where I am able to relax away from baseball, like Seattle or Los Angeles, he said. San Francisco has a Little Tokyo district, which makes that area very attractive.The interest in Suzuki is just part of Major League Baseball's effort to take the game international. A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I believe that baseball is poised to become the world's game, says Major League Baseball president Paul Beeston, who headed the entourage. How many countries win in soccer? Maybe five or six. And in basketball the American Dream Team annihilates all comers. Twenty percent of the players in the big leagues are non-American, and a World Cup format in baseball would see about nine or 10 teams with an opportunity to win. The formidable collection of baseball talent assembled for the Japanese tour hit seven home runs in the first three games--none by an American-born player. The market for baseball and the reserves of talent have hardly peaked, says Beeston. I firmly believe that baseball's popularity will soar because it really is the last civil game.Civility. Perhaps that explains baseball's enduring popularity in Japan, a country where manners are highly valued. Ever since the game was introduced to the Japanese by American teacher Horace Wilson in the latter part of the 19th century, baseball has been indelibly etched on the country's psyche. The Yomiuri Giants were the first professional team, established in 1935, and they have become a national icon second only to the Emperor. As Jack Sakazaki, head of one of the country's largest sports-marketing firms, puts it: Baseball is still the king in Japan. The sell-out crowds that have greeted Sosa & Co. wherever they go prove the point. As far as Japan's fans are concerned, the summer of love can go on forever.Tim Noonan is a writer living in Hong Kong  |  2