2000 VOL. 155 NO. 14
Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME
New York Mets fans make themselves heard as baseball mania grips
Big Kids Come Out To Play
a bid to attract more overseas fans, American baseball begins its season
far, far from home
By TIM NOONAN Tokyo
Baseball's opening day never smelled like this. Sure, Hall-of-Fame outfielder
Hank Aaron threw out the first pitch while another legend, the gregarious
"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, led the crowd in a less-than-rousing rendition
of Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch. But
there was no mistaking the pungent aroma of grilled eel and chicken teriyaki
wafting from the stands. And when the players were presented with bouquets
from a bevy of kimono-clad maidens, it was obvious that this was a whole
new ball game.
The most parochial of American professional sports, Major League Baseball
is going international in a big way. For the first time in 130 years,
Opening Day festivities were held outside of North America, as the New
York Mets and Chicago Cubs faced off last week in the Tokyo Dome. "We
are now part of a global economy, and baseball needs to be a meaningful
part of that world," says the league's commissioner, Bud Selig, who led
the delegation to Tokyo. Baseball is hardly a stranger to the Japanese.
In the late 19th century, American teacher Horace Wilson introduced the
game to Japan; it has been a national obsession ever since. More than
100,000 fans watched last week's two-game series, many decked out in
the uniforms of local heroes Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Mike Piazza of
the Mets. The teams split the games, with the highlight an 11th-inning
grand slam in game two by the Mets' Hawaiian-born Benny Agbayani, who
celebrated by dining with another island native, sumo supremo Konishiki.
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isn't the first time North American professional sports have ventured
afield. The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League
have already held season openers in Japan. But in the grand old game of
baseball-America's so-called National Pastime-where change is measured
in glacial increments, launching the league a world away is a revolutionary
event. The game's opener has long been surrounded by an almost nationalistic
aura. When possible, the U.S. President himself tosses out the first ball.
Indeed, moving the ceremonies offshore disturbed a few traditionalists,
including St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, who persuaded teammates
to reject an invitation to play in Japan, opening the way for the Cubs.
"When you initiate change you are going to have resistance," says Selig.
"But this just makes the game stronger."
edition's table of contents
Despite the mini-controversy, the Cubs and Mets seemed thrilled to be
in Japan. The players earned bonuses of $25,000 apiece to make the trip,
which also included exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu
Lions. The Americans managed to squeeze in some local culture with trips
to the Imperial Palace and shopping along the Ginza. Sosa even met Crown
Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. Said the ball player: "The
Crown Prince told me everyone wanted to see me hit a home run."
For baseball fans in Japan, watching the homer-happy Americans was a
welcome departure from the more subtle, tactic-laden local game. Many
Japanese are knowledgeable about American baseball: U.S. sluggers have
been playing in Japan's leagues since 1952, and pitcher Hideo Nomo's breakthrough
season in 1995 with the Los Angeles Dodgers sparked a surge in interest
in America's professional leagues. Last year, 45% of Major League Baseball's
licensed merchandise sales outside of North America came from Japan.
In New York and Chicago, meanwhile, the games began in the wee hours of
the morning, meaning most fans were fast asleep when the first season
of the millennium got under way. Nevertheless, large-screen TVs were
set up at New York's Penn Station so subway and rail commuters could watch
the game, and in Chicago Harry Caray's restaurant opened for a breakfast
buffet with the late broadcaster's wife Dutchie leading patrons in singing
Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
For the visiting American officials, the mini-series sparked fresh talk
of a baseball World Cup. "When you look at the diverse origins of players
in the major leagues, it is inevitable at some point," says Selig. Currently,
40% of the 70,000 players under contract in American professional baseball
are foreign-born. "It was a great event," Piazza said about the Tokyo
games. "Opening Day is Opening Day, no matter where it is played." And
who knows, in the not-too-distant future, the term World Series may
become more than a misnomer.
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