The Major League Baseball season begins in Tokyo on Wednesday with the Oakland Athletics set to feel the full force of ‘Ichiro-mania’ when they face the Seattle Mariners.
The A’s will be the ‘home’ team for both games, but the majority of fans filling the cavernous Tokyo Dome will be there to pay homage to Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
The record-breaking Ichiro has never played in his home country in a Seattle uniform since joining them in 2001 and his ’home-coming’ is major news, competing with a planned North Korean rocket launch which has Japan on red alert.
Seattle and Oakland were scheduled to face off in Tokyo in 2003, but the series was called off because of the threat of war in Iraq.
The teams open the MLB regular season with a two-game series on Wednesday and Thursday, with the A’s unlikely to get anything like a home-team reception.
Oakland played second fiddle to the circus surrounding Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka circus the last time they crossed the Pacific in 2008.
Despite being the designated home side, the A’s were booted out of the home clubhouse to make way for Boston.
“We are wearing white uniforms,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “But based on the fact the Mariners have more Japanese players than we do, sentiment might go the other way.”
Infielder Munenori Kawasaki has forced his way onto Seattle’s 25-man roster, alongside countrymen Ichiro and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma.
Japan’s most successful sporting export, Ichiro holds MLB’s single-season hits record of 262 and set another iron-man record by reaching 200 hits for the 10th year in a row in 2010.
He was batting .400 since moving reluctantly to third spot in the line-up this spring after batting lead-off nearly all of his career.
“He is a tough customer to deal with,” Melvin told a news conference on Tuesday.
“Now he’s in the middle of the order which poses some different challenges, but I don’t think we pitch to him any differently.
“We’ll pitch to him very carefully. He’s one of the best players in the world and has a ton of respect from us.”
Seattle’s bench coach Robby Thompson said: “We want him to look forward to driving in runs. We feel that Ichi will get the job done in that third spot. We expect big things out of him.”
Meanwhile, Oakland’s Manny Ramirez did not travel to Japan as he must sit out the first 50 games for a second violation of MLB’s drug policy.
But Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes will bring some power to the plate, the centre fielder billed as one of the best players to come out of his country in a generation.
The Mariners were the worst offensive team in MLB last season but are banking on Venezuelan off-season acquisition Jesus Montero to help produce runs.
As part of the MLB’s pledge to assist rebuilding after last year’s deadly tsunami, several players visited the disaster zone in the northeast to hold a baseball clinic on Tuesday.
Both teams were roughed up a little by Japanese teams in warm-up games over Sunday and Monday, although they should have shaken off the cobwebs come game time on Wednesday.
“The adrenaline will kick in tomorrow night,” said Melvin, ahead of the fourth Japan MLB season-opener. “Tomorrow will be a special night for everybody here.”