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Much of the excitement building toward the opening of the 2005 Japan pro baseball season centers around the new Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The Pacific League expansion team will, weather permitting, play its inaugural game Saturday, March 26, against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Chiba Marine Stadium. Game time is 1 p.m.

Rakuten is also scheduled to play at Chiba on March 27, then travel to Fukuoka for a three-game series against the SoftBank Hawks March 28-30. The Eagles will then play their home opener (again, weather permitting) on Friday night, April 1, at Fullcast Miyagi Stadium in Sendai. The visitors will be the Seibu Lions, and game time is 6:10 p.m.

Expansion baseball reminds me of April 1962, when the New York Mets debuted in the National League. I was 13 years old, living in New Jersey and so looking forward to watching the Mets play their first-ever game on Tuesday, April 10. Manager Casey Stengel’s club was to open against the Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

At 8:55 p.m., EST, I tuned in our old Zenith black-and-white TV to WOR, Channel 9 in New York, only to be disappointed to see a tarp-covered infield and hear Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson say the game had just been rained out. That is how that disastrous 1962 season began for the Mets, with a wash-out.

WOR programmers, obviously realizing they had an audience of disappointed baseball fans, had Nelson sign off, and they substituted a baseball movie called “The Big Leaguer,” starring Edward G. Robinson.

The next night, on Wednesday, April 11, the Mets finally got under way, as ex-Brooklyn Dodger right-hander Roger Craig threw the first pitch in the team’s history, and Stengel fielded a lineup of aging National League stars including Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, Charlie Neal, Richie Ashburn, Felix Mantilla, Frank Thomas, Hobie Landrith and Gus Bell against the Cards.

The Mets lost that first game, 11-4. Then they lost their home opener, 4-3, to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Polo Grounds on April 13. In fact, New York lost its first nine games, went 3-13 in April and 40-120 for the season.

While the Mets’ beginning on the field was less-than-spectacular, wet and woeful, some major league expansion clubs have managed to make a great first impression. Following is a rundown of how the other 13 new clubs since 1961 fared on Opening Day.

* Washington Senators — Lost to the Chicago White Sox 4-3 at the old Griffith Stadium in D.C. on April 10, 1961. The Senators also lost 11 of their first 15 games.

* Los Angeles Angels — Beat the Orioles 1-0 at Baltimore on April 11, 1961, but lost their next eight, including their home opener 8-1 to the Minnesota Twins at L.A.’s bandbox Wrigley Field (yes, there was another Wrigley Field) on April 27, despite having the legendary Ty Cobb throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

* Houston Colt.45s — Won over the Chicago Cubs 11-2 at Colt Stadium in Houston on April 10, 1962, then shut out the Cubbies in the next two games.

* Kansas City Royals — Triumphed in their first-ever game with a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins at K.C.’s Municipal Stadium on April 8, 1969. The Royals won four of their first five.

* Seattle Pilots — Won their inaugural game 4-3 after scoring four runs in the first inning against the Angels at Anaheim on April 8, 1969. The Pilots also took their home opener over the White Sox 7-0 at Sicks Stadium on April 11.

* Montreal Expos — Victorious over the Mets, 11-10, at Shea Stadium in New York on April 8, 1969. The Expos also won the home lid-lifter, 8-7, beating St. Louis at Montreal’s Jarry Park on April 14.

* San Diego Padres — Beat Houston at home, 2-1, on April 8, 1969. The Padres also shut out the Astros in the next two games for a 3-0 start but then lost six in a row and nine of their next 10.

* Toronto Blue Jays — Playing in snow flurries, the Blue Jays won 9-5 over the White Sox at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977. Bill Singer threw the first pitch in Blue Jays’ history, and Doug Ault hit two home runs.

* Seattle Mariners — The city’s second expansion team in eight years lost its first-ever game to the Angels, 7-0, at the Seattle Kingdome on April 6, 1977.

* Colorado Rockies — Lost their opener 3-0 to the Mets at Shea on April 5, 1993, then won their first-ever home game by a score of 11-4 over Montreal on April 9 before a crowd of 80,227 at Mile High Stadium in Denver.

* Florida Marlins — Beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-3 on April 5, 1993, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, then lost six of their next seven games.

* Tampa Bay Devil Rays — Dropped their debut game 11-6 to the Detroit Tigers on March 31, 1998, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., before 45,369 fans. Ted Williams (before he was frozen), Stan Musial, Al Lopez and Monte Irvin performed a quadruple first-pitch ceremony.

* Arizona Diamondbacks — Beaten by Colorado 9-2 on March 31, 1998, at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. Travis Lee got the D-backs’ first-ever hit, then hit the team’s first homer, got the first RBI and scored the first run on one swing of the bat. Arizona lost its first five games and 13 of its first 15.

So, major-league expansion teams have a record of 8-6 on Opening Day, and we’ll see what the Eagles can do here. Will they win or lose? Or tie? Will they score four runs in the top of the first or get shut out? Or will they be rained out? If so, will the TV station scheduled to air the game show a baseball movie?

We know Yasushi Tao will be the manager, and it’s a good bet that right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma will throw the first pitch at both the season’s first game at Chiba and the home opener in Sendai six days later. But who will be Rakuten’s leadoff batter? Who will get the team’s first hit, score the first run, drive in the first tally, steal the first base and slam the first home run? Who will throw the shikyushiki ceremonial first toss?

Will the first game in Tohoku be played in snow flurries? Or will it be a nice, sunny, blue sky and cherry blossom day? They won’t draw 80,000, but I’ll bet there are sellouts at both Chiba and Sendai.

Whatever happens, it’s sure to be exciting!

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