Why Are The A's And Mariners Playing Baseball In Japan?

TOKYO, JAPAN: Infielder Munenori Kawasaki #61 of Seattle Mariners looks on during the pre season game between Yomiuri Giants and Seattle Mariners at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

Happy Opening Day, baseball fans!

That's right. The Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners kicked off the 2012 baseball season this morning at 6:10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. At the Tokyo Dome. In Japan. The Mariners beat the A's 3-1 in 11 innings. Ichiro had four hits for the Mariners. You can read the wrap-up here.

Oh, you thought it was an exhibition or that people were joking on your Twitter feed? No, it was a real major league baseball game that counts. Well, not in the way the All-Star Game counts, but in the real way games count. In the standings. And there will be another game tomorrow between the same two teams. Then the A's and Mariners will fly home to the states and continue with spring-training games that don't count. On April 6, the A's and Mariners will meet again, this time in Oakland, to start the 160-game-North-American-based portions of their schedules.

It's all part of MLB's efforts to expand the global reach of baseball. Wait, baseball is already a global sport. It's been played in Japan since the 1870s and in Mexico since the 1880s, among many other places.

What Opening Day in Japan is all about is expanding the global reach of MLB.

In 1999, the Rockies and Padres opened the season with a game in Monterrey, Mexico, the first Opening Day held outside the United States and Canada. That game came three years after MLB played its first series in Monterrey, when the Mets faced the Padres in three games in August 1996. Monterrey had hopes of bringing more major league baseball to town. The city bid to host twenty-two of the Montreal Expos' games in 2004 when that franchise was in transition, ultimately losing out to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Monterrey also was in the running to be the new, permanent home of the Expos, but of course they moved to Washington and became the Nationals.

The year after the Rockies and Padres started the season in Mexico, the Japan Opening Series was born, pitting the Cubs against the Mets. Those teams opened the 2000 season with two games, each team winning one. Courtesy of Collecting The Cubs, we have the program cover for that first Mets-Cubs game in Tokyo:

2000japanofficialprogram_medium

and the commemorative Mike Piazza-Sammy Sosa actions figures.

2000japanseriessosa_piazzafigurines_medium

MLB planned to start the 2003 season in Japan with the A's and Mariners, but that series was cancelled after the start of the Iraq War in March. Ichiro had joined the Mariners in 2001 and, together with teammate and Japan native Kazuhiro Sasaki, would have been the first Japanese-born players to return to Japan for an official MLB game. But it was not to be.

Instead, it was Hideki Matsui who had that honor. He signed with the Yankees before the 2003 season and played for New York in the Japan Opening Series in 2004 against the Devil Rays. Again, each team left Japan with a 1-1 record. The Devil Rays won the opener 8-3 while the Yankees took the second game 15-1. Click here for a recap of the opener, including a photo of Tino Martinez circling the bases for the Devil Rays. Click here for the highlights of game two, including a photo of Jorge Posada fist bumping Derek Jeter. That seems familiar.

Four years ago, the A's finally made their first trip to Japan, making up for the cancelled trip in 2003. Their foe was not the Mariners but the defending World Series Champion Red Sox. Japanese-native Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound for the Red Sox on Opening Day, leading the Red Sox to a 6-5 victory. The A's won the second game 5-1 to split the series before heading home.

And now the Mariners and the A's. Ichiro, of course, is still with the Mariners and finally got his chance to play in an official MLB game in his native country. Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and infielder Munenori Kawasaki, also from Japan, will play their first major league seasons with the Mariners this year.

MLB in Japan is serious business. Tom Verducci gives us the facts and figures:

Almost 70 percent of MLB's international revenues are derived from the Japanese market. Playing regular season games in Japan for a fifth time in the past 14 years has helped drive such interest. Last year MLB opened an official MLB of Japan online shop, and for years it has sold virtual signage to Japanese companies to insert into the MLB International broadcasts of All-Star, LCS and World Series games.

MLB's longest-running international broadcast partner is the Japanese company Dentsu, which sub-licenses major league programming to as many as six different Japanese networks. Dentsu began its partnership with MLB in 1999 under a five-year deal worth $65 million, continued with a six-year deal worth $235 million and in 2009 signed a six-year extension (through 2015) that has been reported to be worth about $475 million. MLB's 30 clubs share equally in the haul, as they do all international revenues.

In addition to it's broadcasting agreement with Dentsu, MLB launched a Japan-only YouTube channel in 2010. Viewers in Japan can watch any MLB game 36 hours after its completion. Video highlights of games from prior seasons are also available.

MLB's growth in Japan has come at the expense of Nippon Professional Baseball, the professional baseball league in Japan and MLB's partner in sponsoring the Japan Opening Series. The popularity of NPB games has waned as more MLB games became available for viewing on TV and the internet. The departure of big Japanese baseball stars like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Dice-K also undercut the NPB in favor of MLB.

Where is this headed? Everywhere, according to Commissioner Bud Selig. When asked about how the week-long trip to Japan would affect the the A's and Mariners during the regular reason, Selig responded:

"I know it's tough on Seattle and Oakland," commissioner Bud Selig said, "but this is a very important part of growing the game. It's about China and Japan and Korea and Central America and Europe ... My dream, and it will probably not happen until after my commissionership, is to one day have regular season games in Europe."

And so it appears that the Japan Opening Series is here to stay. Unless it's replaced by the Europe Opening Series or the China Opening Series or the Central America Opening Series. For North American baseball fans, it's certainly odd to open a baseball season with games half a world away, when few in the states and Canada are awake. But if MLB continues down this path, the least it can do is schedule the games at a time when MLB's home market can participate. And there should never again be a blackout on MLB.tv for MLB games played Japan or Europe or China or Central America, like there was this morning in the Oakland Athletics' home market.

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