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Red Sox, Athletics anxious to start season in Japan

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The World Baseball Classic champions are in Japan and now the World Series winners are coming, too.

For the first time, the reigning World Series champions will play in Japan when the Boston Red Sox meet the Oakland Athletics in the Ricoh Japan Opening Series 2008 on March 25 and 26 at Tokyo Dome.

Boston President and CEO Larry Lucchino, Oakland manager Bob Geren and MLB Players Association COO Eugene Orza were among the MLB and Japanese officials on hand at a news conference Tuesday at a Tokyo hotel to promote the event.

Lucchino began by introducing himself in Japanese before detailing the reasons the Red Sox agreed to begin the season in Japan.

“First, we wanted to join the efforts of baseball people everywhere, MLB, NPB and others to increase the global popularity of baseball,” Lucchino said.

“Secondly, we wanted to express to the great baseball nation of Japan the gratitude of the reigning world champions for the contributions that came from (Daisuke) Matsuzaka-san (15-12 in 2007), (Hideki) Okajima-san (3-2, 5 saves) and the support of the people of Japan.

“We could not have won the World Series in 2007 without the significant contributions of Matsuzaka-san and Okajima-san.”

Boston will begin MLB’s tour of Japan on March 22 with an exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo Dome. Later that night the Athletics will face the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants. Oakland will face Hanshin on March 23, while the Red Sox will square off with the Giants that same day.

The Red Sox and A’s will then open the MLB season with the aforementioned two-game series.

While the CL season begins on March 28, the MLB series will go on at the same time as the early portion of the Pacific League season, which begins on March 20, prompting some criticism.

“We negotiated with the MLB and we found out this is the only time these teams are going to be able to play in Japan,” acting NPB Commissioner Shiro Kondo said.

“On a personal note, the Pacific League owner has not contacted or criticized me directly about these games.”

The A’s were originally scheduled to open the 2003 season in Japan against the Seattle Mariners. But the series was canceled due to the threat of war in Iraq.

Geren expressed his thanks for the A’s getting another opportunity to play here. Unlike Lucchino, he didn’t prepare a self-introduction in Japanese.

“Earlier I met with Mr. Lucchino and he told me to prepare something in Japanese and I didn’t think he was serious,” Geren joked.

“I know playing the Boston Red Sox, No. 1, they’re the world champions and they have talented players from around the world, including two from Japan,” Geren added. “They’re a very strong team and it’s going to be a fierce competition for us.”

While the A’s are historically one of Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises, the spotlight will be on the World Series champs.

“I know that we will be listed as the home team, but it might feel a little bit more like we’re the visitors,” Lucchino said.

“We do remember that the reigning World Baseball Classic champions are in Japan and we intend to bring to this great baseball country other Red Sox stars as well, such as David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling and other great players who I hope will put on a show for the great baseball fans of Japan.”

The status of Boston’s biggest Japanese star, however, remains uncertain.

Matsuzaka and his wife are expecting their second child around the time the Red Sox will come to Japan, and it is still unknown if Dice-K will be participate in the series.

“As the CEO of the team, I try to stay on top of lots of details, but the due date is beyond my job description,” Lucchino joked when asked if Matsuzaka will make the trip.