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Nine years later, A’s and Mariners set for Japan openers

by Wayne Graczyk

Happy New Year.

Preliminary details have been announced for one of the coming season’s biggest events in Japan — the American League’s official opening games between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics to take place at Tokyo Dome in late March, and it remains to be seen how many Japanese players will be coming as members of the two visiting clubs.

The Mariners and Ichiro Suzuki will meet the A’s to start the major league schedule on March 28 and 29. The opener starts at 7 p.m., while the latter game begins at 6 p.m.

Oakland will be the home team for the series, and we will see if free agent Hideki Matsui re-signs with the Athletics to add further interest for the Japanese fans.

Free agent pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, leaving the Rakuten Eagles, has just signed with Seattle, and there is also a chance former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki will make the Mariners roster in spring training.

Both teams will tune up with exhibition games against Central League clubs in doubleheaders at the Big Egg on March 25 and 26. On the 25th, Seattle will play the Hanshin Tigers at noon, followed by the Oakland game against the Yomiuri Giants at 7 p.m. On the 26th, the A’s will play the Tigers at noon and the Mariners will meet the Giants at 7 p.m.

The two exhibition contests involving the Giants will be sponsored and billed as the Ito Ham Pre-Season Games, and the entire event is sanctioned by Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and Nippon Professional Baseball.

All six games will be televised in Japan by NTV.

The Athletics and Mariners were supposed to have opened the 2003 big league season in Tokyo, but the beginning of the Iraq War in March of that year caused the tour to be cancelled just a few days before the teams were scheduled to leave for Japan. Now they will finally be meeting here nine years later.

Diamond Dust: The Seibu Lions, in an effort to make up for the loss of infielder Jose Fernandez (returning to the Rakuten Eagles), have signed a former New York Mets player by the name of Carter, and it isn’t Hall of Fame catcher Gary.

He’s 29-year-old Chris Carter, a left-handed hitting first baseman-DH who has reportedly agreed to a one-year ¥80 million contract for the 2012 season.

Carter played in 100 games for the Mets in 2010, hitting .263 with four home runs and 24 RBIs. In six seasons at the Triple-A level, Carter hit 98 homers. He split the 2011 season between Durham and Gwinnett, the Triple-A affiliates of the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves, respectively.

Carter is one of four new foreign players joining the Lions. The others are infielder Esteban German and pitchers Enrique Gonzalez and Randy Williams.

Another newcomer to the Lions next season will be relief pitcher Micheal Nakamura. It appeared he would be going back to Sapporo and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters where he was the closer during the Fighters’ pennant-winning years in 2006-07, but no.

According to reports, the 35-year-old Micheal has inked a one-year ¥40 million deal with Seibu where he should be competing for the closer’s job, which was held in recent years by Americans Alex Graman and Brian Sikorski. Both have been released after playing in Japan for five and 10 years, respectively.

How about that, Alex Ochoa?

He’s been named the first base coach on the Boston Red Sox staff of new manager Bobby Valentine.

Ochoa played five seasons in Japan, three (2003-05) with the Chunichi Dragons and two (2008-09) with the Hiroshima Carp. It’s always nice to see the Japan connections maintained in the major leagues.

Semi-finally this week, popular Tokyo Yakult Swallows mascot “Tsubakuro” made like a player and agreed to a contract for the coming season that includes his salary plus all the Yakult Tough Man drinks he can handle. The big bird is a huge fan favorite at the Swallows Jingu Stadium.

One of his trademark performances is to join in the post-game TV hero interview following a Yakult victory. As the announcer-interviewer asks questions and holds a microphone to the face of the game-winning player to get his responses, Tsubakuro stands on the other side with his own “mike,” nodding his head as the hero speaks.

There is always something different attached to the top of the character’s make-believe microphone. One night it might be a soup ladle, another night a toothbrush or a Magic Marker or a coat hanger or another surprise. Sometimes the hero player cracks up, and it is always an amusing delight for the Swallows fans.

Finally this week, you may remember our column of two years ago about the Wendy’s hamburger chain pulling out of Japan and how disappointed Kevin Hodges might have been. Hodges was a pitcher with the Yakult Swallows who led the Central League with 17 victories in 2002, and his “good luck” pre-game meal on days he was scheduled to start was a Wendy’s chicken sandwich.

Now Wendy’s is back for another go at Japan’s fast food market, with the first shop having re-opened in Tokyo last month.

But, that’s not all. Kevin Hodges is back in Japanese baseball, this time working as a scout for the Lions. He’ll visit Seibu’s spring camp in Miyazaki in February and work on getting foreign players for the team.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com