“Godzilla” is now a New Yorker, but Japan will have plenty to cheer about when the baseball season arrives in the spring.
Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki are coming home — for a while at least.
The Seattle Mariners will open their 2003 season against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome on March 25 and 26, officials announced at a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday. It will mark the second time Major League Baseball teams will open the year in Japan, after the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets played a two-game series here in 2000.
Leading up to the season-openers, the two American League West teams will play two preseason games against Japanese squads. The Mariners will face the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions on March 22 and 23, respectively. Oakland will warm up against Yomiuri and the Daiei Hawks on the same dates. All games will be played at the Tokyo Dome.
“It’s a completely different feeling (this year),” said Ichiro, the 2000 AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. “Playing the opener in my homeland has tremendous meaning and I get really excited just thinking about it.”
The A’s took the AL West Division title last season with a late run, eventually losing to the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs. The squad includes AL MVP Miguel Tejada and Cy Young winner Barry Zito.
“They are a very young team,” Sasaki said, “and once they get on fire, they’re unstoppable. We’ll have to keep the game close and bring it into a one-run game. Of course, as a closer, I’d like it to be a blowout.”
The Mariners finished third in the division and failed to advance to the playoffs with a 93-69 record. Seattle will play under new manager Bob Melvin, who replaced the fan-favorite, short-tempered Lou Piniella, now with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
“I’d like to know (Melvin’s) approach to the game as early as possible in the spring,” Ichiro said. “My impression after meeting with him is that he’s cool, unlike Lou.
“When we go to Tampa, I’d like to hit a close-call infield single, so Lou can come out and throw (first) base again,” Ichiro joked.
Ichiro won’t have much to laugh about when his team faces Oakland in Tokyo, however. The A’s have a trio of top-notch pitchers — Zito (23-5, 2.75 ERA last year), Tim Hudson (15-9, 2.98) and Mike Mulder (19-7, 3.47) — who Ichiro said are “the best starting combination in the league.”
“They’re tough,” said Ichiro, who went .321 with 208 hits and 51 RBIs last year. “That word sums them up.”
Baseball, though, doesn’t seem to be the only “fun” Ichiro’s teammates are anticipating in Tokyo.
Ichiro said he talked to his teammates in the offseason. They — especially outfielder Mike Cameron — wanted Ichiro to take them for a night out.
“I have another job to do,” Ichiro said smiling. “For some reason, they’re looking forward to coming to Japan. They sounded like they heard about Roppongi. Guys like Cameron are looking for fun aside from baseball.
“I’ll leave that to Sasaki,” said Ichiro, glancing over at Sasaki, who sat next to him. “He likes to invite people, so he’ll probably introduce somewhere to them.”
Hearing that, Sasaki blushed and said, “This is going to be a very important series, especially because it’s the opener. So I’ll warn them — especially Cameron.”