Mariners in Tokyo to open MLB season on Wednesday

Tokyo Dome. From Flickr user

The Mariners will kick off the Major League Baseball season on Wednesday. But if you’re thinking of going to the game, drive right past Safeco and head to Sea-Tac. The team will be in Japan playing a two-game series against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday and Thursday.

The match-up in Tokyo has been a long time coming: it was first slated for Opening Day in 2003, but the trip was cancelled when the Iraq War broke out just a few hours before the Mariners’ flight.

The Mariners were an obvious choice to make the trip to Tokyo this year: Veteran Ichiro Suzuki is one of the most popular Japanese athletes of all time, the club is owned by Japanese company Nintendo, and the M’s added another Japanese player, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to their roster this year (though he won’t be pitching in either of the games in Tokyo).

The US and Japan have long shared a love of Baseball. In the early 1900s, Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles all hosted teams of Japanese-American baseball players. The sport has been popular in Japan for over 100 years. The Chicago White Sox and New York Giants visited Japan in 1913, and Japan formed its first professional league in 1936.

Masanori Murakami was the first professional player from Japan to join Major League Baseball, in 1964 – on a one-year “loan” from his home team, the Nankai Hawks. When the San Francisco Giants tried to keep him, it set off a contractual battle between Major League Baseball and the Nippon Professional League. The two leagues essentially agreed to leave each other’s players alone, and it wasn’t until 1995 that another Japanese player, Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, came to the US.

Since then, despite the fact that it can be contractually difficult for Japanese players to leave, the number of Japanese-born players in Major League Baseball has grown–as have MLB profits in Japan.

This international opener is part of a widespread Major League Baseball effort to increase the game’s popularity worldwide. The league has opened seasons in Japan in the past, as well as in Mexico and Puerto Rico, but this is the first MLB team visit since the country’s devastating March 2011 tsunami.

In a press release, baseball commissioner Bud Selig framed the series as an opportunity to support the country’s recovery efforts. “…with the shared love of baseball between our nations, I believe that we can use this event to further assist the ongoing relief efforts throughout Japan.”

If you’re in Tokyo this week, you might still be able to find a seat (though even with the help of Google Translate I found the Tokyo Dome website both dazzling and unintelligble). I dug up one pair of tickets for sale online for $239 apiece.

If you do make it to the game, bring a balloon for the seventh inning stretch, because you’re not going to be singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in Japan:

When to watch in Seattle: The games will be starting at about 3am Pacific time, but MLB Network will broadcast them on tape delay: game 1 on Wednesday, March 28 at 6:00am Pacific Time and game 2 at the same time Wednesday March 29th. The games will be rebroadcast each evening at 7:00pm Pacific.