By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor - Archive - Email
Mariners, Athletics set to open season in Japan
Oakland opened the 2008 season in Japan against the Boston Red Sox.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's hard to believe, but we are closing in on the start of the Major League Baseball season.

Only this year the schedule kicks off in Japan with a two-game series between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome. Both teams took off for Japan on Thursday and are slated for a couple of exhibition games this weekend before lifting the lid on the season Wednesday.

These same two teams had been scheduled to play here in March 2003, but the series was canceled at the last minute due to the threat of war in Iraq. Coincidentally, A's manager Bob Melvin was the manager of the Mariners back in 2003.

"We're excited about it," Melvin said. "And the fact that you're playing against a team that's going through the exact same thing, there are no excuses for anybody. I honestly am looking forward to the trip."

Oakland opened the 2008 season in Japan against the Boston Red Sox, splitting a pair of games.

"We're thrilled to be back in Japan," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. "When they asked who wanted to go, we were the first to put up our hands."

Perhaps it's not the best American baseball has to offer with Seattle and Oakland expected to be two of the worst teams in the majors this season.

Seattle is a team that last year lost 95 games, endured a 17-game losing streak and for the third straight season crossed the plate less times than any other team in the American League. Oakland, meanwhile, only avoided the cellar in the AL West because of Seattle, but this offseason traded its two best starting pitchers in Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, in addition to closer Andrew Bailey.

Major League Baseball in Japan
The Seattle-Oakland series marks the fourth time Major League Baseball has opened a season in Japan. The New York Mets and Chicago Cubs squared off in 2000 before the Yankees and Hideki Matsui played the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004. Oakland and Boston then faced one another at the Tokyo Dome to kick off the 2008 campaign.

MLB has also hosted Opening Series games in Monterrey, Mexico (Rockies vs.Padres in 1999), as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico (Rangers vs. Blue Jays in '01).

So, yeah, this isn't exactly Yankees-Red Sox we are talking about.

But, you'd be hard pressed to not find more excitement for this series than any other. Why? Well how about the return of Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the most iconic sports figure to ever come out of Japan.

"We've never had this opportunity before, so it's new for me and new for the team," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "This is something we'll probably do once in a lifetime, so I look forward to that and would like to take advantage of it."

Suzuki, of course, left Japan for the United States back in 2001 and instantly became a hit, winning the league's MVP and Rookie of the Year in his first season, then producing 10 straight years of hitting .300 or better with 200 hits and 25 stolen bases. Last year, though, the 38-year-old superstar showed signs of slowing down, as he batted just .272 and failed to reach 200 hits for the first time in his 11-year career.

This year, the great Suzuki is embarking on a new challenge, as manager Eric Wedge has moved him from his customary leadoff spot down to No. 3 in the order. Suzuki has adjusted nicely this spring, and is hitting .400 with eight RBIs through 30 spring at-bats.

Suzuki, though, isn't the only Japanese star returnnig to his native land. Utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma also are returning to Japan.

"I think it's going to be crazy," said Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who'll oppose Oakland's Brandon McCarthy on Wednesday. "We've got a lot of Japanese guys here. We've got Ichi, who is a big star there. It's going to be a good experience and it's going to be fun."

Oakland, meanwhile, doesn't have anyone from Japan on its roster, but catcher Kurt Suzuki was on the 2008 A's team.

"It's pretty crazy over there," Suzuki said. "It's interesting to watch."

This series marks the fourth season opener in Japan and the first since the Red Sox and A's played in 2008 at Tokyo Dome, site of next year's openers. Since 1999, 10 clubs (Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox and A's) have participated in international openers.

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