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Official Major League Baseball Debuts in Japan

April 12, 2000

Major leagues, including Sammy Sosa (left), at a press conference in Tokyo. (Jiji Press)

The opening games of the U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) season were played on March 29 and 30 at Tokyo Dome, the first time for an official Major League game, much less an opening game, to be held in Japan. Tickets for these games have been a hot item, in no small part due to Japanese fans' familiarity with some of the players and managers of the two participating teams, the National League's New York Mets and Chicago Cubs.

Expanding the Market
The U.S. has four major professional sports: basketball (NBA), football (NFL), hockey (NHL), and baseball. Of these, the NBA and NHL have already held official games in Japan. The NFL also takes an exhibition game to Japan once every two years. While in the past the Major League has sent one of its clubs, or a team of all-stars, to Japan every other year in the off season to face a Japanese counterpart, these games are little more than entertaining goodwill events, and there has never been an official Major League game played in Japan. This year's games were made possible as a result of a proposal submitted by the Major League, which was accepted by the owners of Japan's 12 pro baseball teams. This initiative is seen as an effort by MLB to expand its fan base in Japan, thereby increasing its overall market.

Familiar Faces
Both participating teams included personalities well-known in Japan. Heading this list was Mets' manager Bobby Valentine. When Valentine managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995, he was adored by Japanese fans. Many of these fans were thrilled to see him make his return to what could be described as his "second home" as a Major League manager. Valentine himself has expressed a deep affinity for Japan.

During a visit to promote the games, Valentine, accompanied by Mets' catcher and star player Mike Piazza, said, "It's been my dream to manage in Japan again. I want Japan's baseball fans to see some good games." Piazza is also well-known to Japanese fans: he caught for Hideo Nomo when the pitcher made his Major League debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cubs, of course, brought with them star slugger Sammy Sosa, who lit up at the plate for three home runs in Japan during the 1998 games between Japan League and Major League all-stars. Sosa has stated his love for Japan, and fans were eagerly awaiting a chance to see one of his arching home-run blasts in person.

Prior to the official opening games, the Mets and the Cubs each took on the Yomiuri Giants and the Seibu Lions of the Japan League on March 27 and 28. These games, which featured such mouth-watering match-ups as Lions' star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka facing off against Sosa, also perked the interest of fans. On March 27 the Mets crushed the Lions 8-1, while the Giants shur out the Cubs 6-0. The next day, the Giants scored a 9-5 win over the Mets, while the Cubs won a close game with the Lions 6-5.

Start of a New Tradition?
In order for official MLB games in Japan to continue, a number of issues must be dealt with, including travel time, health management, and the will of the players. According to experts, however, as long as the players enjoy the trip and the games are successful and free of serious injury, there is a high possibility that they could develop into something of a tradition.

The Cubs and the Mets split the series one game apiece, with the Cubs winning the first game 5-3, and the Mets hitting back the next night to score a 5-1 victory.

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.