Go East, young man

MY APARTMENT — How do you get to JFK? Practice. And three plane rides.

I woke up at 7 AM (Tokyo time) Thursday and caught up on a few emails. Believe it or not, MLB.com kept the full website running despite my nine-day absence from the office. There’s no better alarm clock than the fear of an internet crisis while you sleep through US business hours.

Hamarikyu Gardens -- like Central Park minus the risk of samurai sword attack after dark.

By 9 AM, I was out the door with MLB.com’s Doug Miller for some Tokyo sightseeing. After a week packed with workouts, press conferences, player appearances and exhibition games, Wednesday and Thursday mornings finally offered an opportunity to venture more than a few blocks from the ballpark. Doug is a self-proclaimed “wanderer” with an excellent sense of direction and I’m great at tagging along when other people make plans, so it was a good fit.

Thursday’s highlights included Kiddie Land — a mega toy store that isn’t nearly as creepy as its name sounds — and the Park Hyatt Hotel. Fifty-two stories above Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill offers a panoramic view of the entire city and a close-up look at the bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson first met in Lost in Translation. After dodging the hostess — apparently that view is a perk of ordering the $65 prix fixe lunch — I stood at the window and took in the city sprawl. Even on a hazy day, skyscrapers and low-rises stretched to the horizon in all directions. I guess 27 million people have to live, work and sing karaoke somewhere.

Not pictured: Red-headed piano player singing Scarborough Fair.

After a quick stop to check out of our hotel — where the top-floor bar offered only faux-tropical scenery and McDonalds-style fries — I was at the Tokyo Dome by 3 PM to get my Kenny Bloggins on. The game went final around 8:30, I published my last post from the Tokyo Dome at 9 and was on the bus to the airport an hour later. Pro tip for all you international travelers out there: When selecting the quickest line through Japanese customs, avoid the one Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon are waiting on.

The A’s charter went wheels-up shortly before midnight. Summary of the next nine hours: Complementary fleece pajamas, teriyaki chicken thighs, 150 pages of A Game of Thrones, three Justified episodes, mushroom and cheddar frittata. Thanks to the wonders of the International Date Line and a possible jump-to-the-left-step-to-the-right by the pilots, we arrived in Oakland at 5 PM Thursday, Pacific Time. My March 28 had now been ongoing for approximately 33 hours and I’d been awake for 28 of them.

Tasteful nudes. Wait, sorry. Tasty noodles.

Travel options from Oakland to New York were limited to A) Hang out in the airport for six hours then grab a redeye, B) Stay at a hotel in Oakland then fly to New York Friday morning with a layover in Charlotte, or C) Fly to Phoenix Thursday night then direct to New York on Friday morning. I opted for C and checked into my hotel in Phoenix at 11 PM — just in time for the restaurant, bar and room-service kitchen to close for the night. Good thing I’d sampled the local NorCal cuisine with some California Pizza Kitchen at the terminal in Oakland.

Is it OK to eat an airport chicken fajita burrito at 8 AM if your body still thinks it’s late afternoon? Because that may have gone down the following morning. Hours 27-32 in the air since last Wednesday may have been the most uncomfortable, as I was stuck next to the window while a, uh, hefty gentleman filled the middle seat. The flight attendant gave me a weird look when I requested sleepwear and a multi-course menu. Just like they say: You can take the reporter off the Oakland A’s team plane …

Thirty-five hours after the Opening Series ended — and nine days after I left New York for Phoenix — a cab dropped me at my building on Manhattan’s East Side. Roughly 14 seconds later, the sleeping commenced.

Wrapping it up from the Opening Series

Game 2 of the Opening Series began with a traditional Japanese samurai dance performance/laser light show and ended with Justin Smoak grounding out to second base. The Opening Series ends with a 1-1 split between the A’s and Mariners, meaning the clubs will return to the US with the AL West a hotly contested race:

Hanshin Tigers: 2-0, 1.000
Oakland Athletics: 2-2, .500
Yomiuri Giants: 1-1, .500
Seattle Mariners: 1-3, .250
Texas Rangers: 0-0, –
Los Angeles Angels: 0-0, –

For what it’s worth, I like Hanshin to make the postseason — especially with a second Wild Card now in place.

Either Ichiro or Brad Pitt was batting when I took this -- don't remember which.

I’ll have a few more posts in the next say or two, mostly about some cool touristy stuff I did Wednesday and Thursday. But first I gotta catch a plane halfway across the world. And then another couple planes all the way across the US.

Domo arigato for reading and sayonara for now,

Ian

Diners, Drive-ins and Domes

I touched on the Tokyo Dome’s food options a few days ago, but concession stands here deserve more than just a couple paragraphs. If your local MLB park serves bento boxes and fried squid, feel free to go watch the French baseball fans again or something.

Even 5,000 miles from Chavez Ravine, you can still enjoy a hot dog at the ballpark. Regular dogs come on a bun with a combo ketchup-mustard pacakge, and there’s also a jumbo option skewered on a wooden stick. The standard dog tasted like your average dirty water wiener, although somehow made with lower quality meat. Definitely a hint of Spam in there. They also don’t serve sauerkraut, which means I could never live here. I’m not proud of occasionally eating kraut and mustard on a bun with no hot dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. French fries and popcorn are also popular, and there’s a combination hot pretzel/churro stand (chetzel stand) on the upper concourse.

Bento boxes are a common site and come in several sizes featuring rice, Japanese veggies, sushi roll pieces and various items tempura. I didn’t try any of these delicacies, but a scout for one American League club reported the veggies were fringe-average and the fried stuff was no better than a 40 on the 20-80 scale.

As the old saying goes, sometimes a picture is worth six Japanese characters. I wasn’t going anywhere near these popcorn somethings, but the sign indicates they’re either deep-fried squid or deep-fried octopus. The squidopus even seems to be saying so himself. In general, seafood is not something I’m willing to get real adventurous with. I’ve just been burned too many times before — the Great Shrimp Crepe Incident of 2011 comes to mind. But “When in Tokyo…” so I went out on a limb Monday, ordering the chef’s choice of nigiri at a moderately upscale sushi joint near our hotel. Some of it was slimy. Some of it was scaly. The chef may have found Nemo in the day-old bucket and sliced him up for me. But I decided I was going to eat everything on the plate, and I did. That said, I would never touch squid-on-a-stick at the Tokyo Dome.

There are a few of these stands around the main concourse, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what the pictured food items actually are. I asked several of the concessionary engineers, but no luck. Is it a turkey sandwich? Cream cheese popper? Must be a high-class item with that ¥750 price tag (about $10). A hot dog costs half that. Noodle bowls and fries are only ¥400 ($5), although some of the curry rice and fried chicken bowls run as high as ¥860 ($11). In a country where nothing is inexpensive, eating at the ballpark is probably 50 percent cheaper than at Citi Field. Then again, we’re half a world away from Shake Shack in more ways than one.

When I discovered the premium buffet on the second level of the Egg, I was PUMPED. After eating two meals here nearly every day this week, I would have rather swallowed a samurai sword than taken down another gray noodle bowl. Priced at ¥2,500 ($33) and accessible only with a ticket in the luxury boxes or club seats, I was convinced this was finally stadium cuisine on par with that of newer American parks. Once again, disappointment. I don’t want to sound like Tom Colicchio during the first week of a Top Chef season. I love ballpark food, especially the stuff that’s unique to each Major League city. Every time I ordered this week, I was hoping for something that would warrant a “You won’t believe what they serve at baseball games in Tokyo!” But this buffet had Olive Garden-level spaghetti and meatballs along with dumplings and spring rolls straight out of a Panda Express styrofoam box.

I flew to Tokyo expecting to visit one of the world’s finest cuisine hubs and haven’t been disappointed. From the $4 breakfast udon to the wood-fired margherita pizzas to the sashimi I ate directly out of a 10-food bluefin tuna, I’ve had some amazing food this week. But none of it has come from the Tokyo Dome.

Opening Series Game 2: Mariners vs. Athletics

If you want to watch a baseball game but also want to visit an amusement park, the Tokyo Dome is your spot.

With Opening Day out of the way, Game 2 of the Opening Series should be just another AL West divisional battle, right? Sure, if other AL West divisional battles are played in the world’s most populous city and in front of 42,000 fans who have no idea when they’ll get to see Ichiro and friends in person again.

Yo, yo Yoenis.

Forty minutes before game time, it looks like we’re in for another packed house here at the Egg. Skies overhead are gray, chances of a rain delay appear pretty slim. I still don’t see any signs of an outfield band, but ushers are handing out inflatable thunder sticks at the stadium gates. Rest assured — ears will be ringing by the seventh-inning stretch.

The atmosphere around BP today was a little more “business as usual” than last night. Munenori Kawasaki practiced his breaks down the third-base line as teammates took cuts in the cage. Yoenis Cespedes fine-tuned his swing behind the plate. He later provided roughly 700 BP souvenirs for fans in the left field bleachers. The air only had about 90 percent of last night’s crackle, and the field only had about 75 percent of the suits.

For relaxing times …

Yes, it’s that piano.

Just fans of the game …

Only two teams could make the trip to Japan to play in front of Tokyo’s 42,000 biggest baseball fans. But that doesn’t mean the A’s and Mariners were the only clubs represented in the Big Egg tonight.

Got a few issues with this guy’s parenting. No. 1: If you’re a Red Sox fan, how do you let your daughter out of the house in a Yankees dress? No. 2: Fine, so you admit failure and allow her to root for your favorite team’s rival. That’s bad enough. How do you let her walk around in a pink Yankees shirt. At least suffer the embarrassment of a house divided in midnight blue. And No. 3: Teaching her the peace sign this early ensures a lifetime of touristy photobombing.

Somebody is jacked up about Magic Johnson. Either that, or he’s unaware Nomo-mania ended 15 years ago. Also, just a guess, but I don’t think that Texas T-shersey has Matt Harrison’s No. 54 on the back.

Orange fanny pack around his shoulder AND a pony tail under the backwards hat? This is a man not afraid of life’s bolder flavors. I bet he orders omakase from the ballpark sushi chef and doesn’t even pile on a bunch of ginger when he eats the questionable fish pieces.

Does this count as a Marlins fan sighting? The Mr. Met hat says otherwise. Fans would love Mr. Met over here. He fits right in with the half-lovable, half-terrifying trend we saw in mascots for both the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants this week. And in Thumper too, for that matter.

Little-known fact: Now that the Rockies have released Casey Blake, Doc Halladay is the only bearded MLB player not on the Oakland A’s 25-man roster. Collin Cowgill, Josh Reddick, Andrew Carignan… Seriously, that team has like seven dudes with the exact same mountain man look.

I’ve been a little surprised at how few fans are sporting the interlocking NY at the Tokyo Dome this week. Guess Hideki Matsui couldn’t make the Yankees hat more famous than the Yankees can.

Game 1: Mariners vs. Athletics

We’re setting sail from the Far East on a six month journey to the postseason. Welcome aboard the good ship Opening Day.

The band is on the field!

Pregame ceremonies were lengthy. Reserves for each team were announced by position, followed by managers and starters. I’ll give you one guess for who received the loudest ovation. Hint: He wears high socks and isn’t Thumper. Then came a video presentation on the center field scoreboard honoring several organizations committed to helping Japan rebuild from last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Hillary Clinton cameoed along with Bobby Valentine and several MLB players.

Really disappointed with the lack of flyover during the anthem.

National anthems were performed by US Army Specialist Amanda Tetreault (accompanied by the US Army Japan Band) and singer/actor Ryotaro Sugi. Kimigayo, the Japanese anthem, is short and somewhat somber, especially when sung a capella immediately after the Star Spangled Banner. Sugi was the first male anthem performer this week and sang very slowly, almost speaking the words. It’s possible he’s the Japanese William Shatner. After ceremonial first pitches by three of the tsunami honorees (accompanied by US ambassador to Japan John Roos), the pomp and circumstance exited the field and it was Play Ball for the first time in 152 days.

Is that Reggie Jackson? Nope, just an A's fan wearing his flip-down sunglasses from 1983.

Never thought I’d say this, but it just doesn’t feel like a baseball game without four trumpets and a drum leading personalized chants from the outfield bleachers. Even sans musical accompaniment, Japanese fans seems hyper-attuned to the game on the field. Even the most mundane of foul pops elicit an “Ooooooooh” from the crowd. Everyone seems on the edge of their seats, but not in a tense way. People just can’t wait to see what happens next. The fans here only get two live Major League games, and they’re going to hang on every second of them.

At times, everything else that happens in the Tokyo dome feels like elaborate B-roll for Ichiro’s at-bats. It’s impossible to overstate how much of a centerpiece he is to this whole Opening Series. Of the fans wearing jerseys, probably 75 percent are repping Seattle and 90 percent of those are No. 51. Oh, you were told there would be no math? I’m working with an abacus over here so you’re on your own carrying that four. Anyway, the man is nothing short of a national hero. The only comparison I can come up with: Remember those two weeks during during the Beijing Olympics when Michael Phelps was EVERYWHERE? Leading every conversation, pitching every product — we watched three hours of badminton hosted by Bob Costas to watch him swim for three minutes. Ichiro is like that here, but apparently all the time. So as long as he’s playing for the Mariners — and probably long after — an entire nation will be wearing navy blue and northwest green.

BREAKING: As I wrote that last paragraph, Ichiro singled in an insurance run in the top of the 11th, then got caught in a rundown (pickle!) and was tagged out between first and second. The fans gave him a 10-second standing ovation. A standing ovation for an RBI single and a baserunning mistake. They might lay down in front of the plane on Friday to prevent him from leaving.

A half-inning after Ichiro’s error, Brandon League whiffed Kurt Suzuki to put Game 1 of the Opening Series in the Gameday archives. Dustin Ackley was named MVP and awarded a giant check for 1 million yen in a ceremony on the mound. Seattle sits atop the AL West. Oakland sits in the cellar. And Ichiro probably sits somewhere at the front of a 10,000-person autograph line.

There will be about 360,000 pitches thrown this season

This is the first.

Opening Day 2012: This is not a test!

What time is it? Game time! Well, almost. Right now it’s warmup time, 63 minutes before the first official pitch of 2012.

Batting practice felt a little different on the field today, as well it should. There was an energy in the air even before the Tokyo Dome began to fill with fans. Players looked more focused as they worked through familiar stretching routines. A few whispered to themselves as they stepped into the cage and quiet intensity permeated the infield. Dozens of VP’s of Something Development in suits networked behind the plate, pretending it wasn’t anything special to listen in on Coco Crisp and friends.

Opening Day is apparently also picture day. I guess you don’t need one of those disposable plastic combs when you’re wearing a hat for the photo. Mariners team parents will receive preview proofs in 4-6 weeks so they can order wallet-sized copies for Mariners team grandparents.

With 60 minutes until game time, it looks like the Big Egg will be jam-packed for the season opener. People here will always come out to the yard when that one dude is playing right field. Yes, Josh Reddick has quite a following in Tokyo. The gentleman above — whose father is an Air Force officer stationed in Japan — had his Oakattle Marithletics jersey custom-made (in China) and was collecting autographs from players on both sides during batting practice.

Day 5: Return of the workout

The A’s and Mariners took the field Tuesday to hone their skillz one more time before Opening Day tomorrow. Yes, real authentic Grade A certified Major League Baseball makes its debut mañana. The workout routine was roughly the same as it’s been all week: Get dressed, kill time in the dugout, stretch, infield drills, batting practice …

This Japanese reporter leads the league in socks.

Players from both teams looked loose and light on their feet with just 31 hours until the stats start counting. Kurt Suzuki yucked it up for Japanese photogs while strapping on his gear. Blake Beavan greeted me with a hearty “konnichiwa!” in the Mariners clubhouse, although I’m 99 percent sure he has no idea who I am. Did I do that right? I was trying to humblebrag.

Sup, skip? NM, U? Chillin'.

The workout was exactly as exciting as it looks, so I’ll take this opportunity to announce that yesterday at 4:14 PM I pronounced myself fully cured of jetlag. Having never previously strayed more than seven hours from Eastern Time, I came into this trip planning on a power-through strategy for adjusting to the 13-hour difference. After staying awake for the entire flight, I slept a solid seven hours the first night and expected to feel normal the following day. I did, until about 4 PM. You know when you drink half a bottle of NyQuil and then only sleep for five hours instead of the recommended eight? … just roll with it … It was like that. I was groggy and sluggish and my brain felt like it needed a walker to get around.  Even though I slept well the first three nights, I’d crash every day in the late afternoon — or 4 AM, according to my body. But yesterday I didn’t feel like hibernating after lunch, so I guess I’m officially adapted to Tokyo time. Can’t wait to regurgitate those 13 hours back up in two days!

Tye Waller can do more than just coach first base.

At the start of a workout, players walk through a tunnel from the clubhouse to the dugout and then jog onto the field. As soon as the first Mariners begin to emerge, the Japanese media assembles. Almost a dozen photographers lie in wait, fingers on shutter buttons. John Jaso is not the man they’re waiting for. Even Felix Hernandez is not the man they’re waiting for. There he is, Muenori Kawasaki! Likely just a role player if he even makes the Mariners’ April roster, the former SoftBank Hawks infielder has been second in CFPA (Camera Flashes Per Appearance) only to Ichiro this week. Hisashi Iwakuma ranks third. All other players are tied for fourth.

And like that ... he was gone.

I haven’t seen the new Mad Men yet, but it couldn’t have been much better than the show Carlos Peguero just put on in batting practice. Hombre is every bit of 6’5, 235 pounds and he does not get cheated during BP. Pitch after pitch, it’s lock and unload as hard as you can. Balls were flying off the billboards in right and into the batter’s eye in center, almost hitting the speakers that hang from the center of the roof. A Peguero vs. Brandon Allen home run derby tomorrow with Ichiro pitching would be Japan’s greatest contribution to world culture since the Tamagatchi. One other note: If you spoil the Mad Men premiere for me, I will run over your foot with a John Deere.

None of my 'Los Peguero photos included ballpark yoga.

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