PHOTOS BY JUSTIN GOLDMAN
The 2020 Major League Baseball season was supposed to begin last Thursday, March 26. Opening Day is one of my favorite dates on the calendar—for years, I would take a personal day from work and spend something like nine hours watching hardball—and this year I had a trip planned to go to the season opener in Milwaukee, to check Miller Park off my ballparks-to-vist list.
Of course, as John Lennon said, life’s what happens while you’re busy making plans—whether you’re Justin Goldman or Major League Baseball. My Milwaukee trip was canceled, and the MLB season has been postponed indefinitely. None of us knows when we’ll be able to watch baseball, or any other sport, again. As such, I thought I’d turn the calendar back a year, and take you all on a trip with me, when I attended a baseball game on the other side of the planet—and inadvertently witnessed history.
THE BACHELOR PARTY
The story starts with my high school friend Nick, who got engaged about a year and a half ago. Nick moved to Japan after college to teach English as part of the JET Program, living first in a rural village and then in Osaka. None of our extended group of friends visited him back then (we were all in our early 20s and mostly broke), and in the ensuing years almost none of us had traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun. So, when the bachelor party discussion began, Japan was the obvious suggestion. Nick, to his credit, didn’t want us to feel obligated to have to shell out for what would be a pretty expensive trip—but we all insisted. So, on March 19, 2019, a group of nine of us (seven members of the high school group, plus two of Nick’s other friends) flew to Tokyo for a 10-day vacation.
There were two reasons for the timing of the trip. The first is that late March is cherry blossom season, when the sakura bloom in pink and white and people gather under the trees to picnic and chat and drink sake while appreciating the beauty of the flowers—a tradition known as hanami. It turned out that we were in Tokyo a little before the sakura peaked, but we did see some trees blooming, and we actually ended up appearing on a national morning TV show, after a reporter decided to interview the gaikokujin (foreigners) sitting under the sakura in Ueno Park. (The TV crew was tickled to discover that Nick, who’s 6-foot-3 and white, spoke Japanese.)
The other reason is that most years, Major League Baseball puts on a season-opening two-game series in Japan between two MLB teams. The 2019 Japan Opening Series was set to take place in Tokyo between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics. Since several of my buddies are diehard A’s fans (we all went to high school in the East Bay), it seemed like an obvious activity for the trip. We got tickets for the second of the two games, on March 21, our second night in Tokyo.
Personally, I had always wanted to attend a baseball game in Japan. The Japanese, you see, love baseball. The Summer Koshien, a two-week high school tournament that takes place every year near Kobe, is perhaps the country’s most popular sporting event. (Future MLB star Daisuke Matsuzaka first came to fame for his Koshien exploits, throwing a 250-pitch, 17-inning complete game in the quarterfinals and then a no-hitter two days later in the final.) And the 12-team Nippon Professional Baseball league elicits a fanatical following; while Japanese society is famously polite, fans at NPB games are raucous, engaging in coordinated cheers (and occasionally violent outbursts) that are more reminiscent of British soccer than American baseball. Fans of the Hanshin Tigers have been known to jump off Osaka’s Ebisu Bridge and into the Dotonbori Canal after big victories.
The A’s-M’s game we attended was held at the Tokyo Dome, the home of the Yomiuri Giants, the NPB’s oldest and most storied franchise. The neighborhood around the ballpark was lively, and I noticed a lot of Americans—likely other tourists who had used the MLB games as an excuse for a trip. I have to be honest, though, I was a little underwhelmed by the Tokyo Dome itself. The ballpark felt kind of bland and characterless; with its symmetrical outfield, artificial turf, and white roof, it reminded me of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the unmourned former home of the Minnesota Twins. Apparently the Tokyo Dome’s nickname is “The Big Egg,” which seems about right. The food was a little disappointing too—mostly hot dogs and french fries, although I did go on a hunt and eventually found some stands that had more Japanese-style options. (I think I ended up eating a katsu sandwich).
Getting a drink, on the other hand, was easy-peasy. During the game, uriko (beer salesgirls) wander the stands, carrying pony kegs on their backs and pouring tap beers right at your seat. There are tons of uriko, offering any kind of Japanese biru you can think of—Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, etc.—and they’re all quite cute. One in particular that was working our section figured out I was a little smitten with her and kept showing up at our row every inning or two to sell us another round. Perhaps this explains the occasionally outlandish behavior of Japanese baseball fans.
Aside from the uriko, I found the scene in the stands a bit staid as well. I’m not sure if this was because we were watching two MLB teams and there were so many Americans on hand, or if it was the fault of the Tokyo Dome, which apparently draws a more sedate crowd than some other Japanese ballparks.
There was an exception to the audience’s restraint. Before the Japan Opening Series, the Mariners had signed Ichiro Suzuki. In America, Ichiro is recognized as a great player: He made 10 All-Star teams, won an MVP award, and racked up more than 3,000 hits (including a single-season record 262 in 2004)—and this is all despite his not coming to the States until he was 27 years old. There’s zero question that Ichiro will be a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2024; he’ll be the first Japanese player to get a plaque in Cooperstown.
In Japan, however, Ichiro is more than all that. He’s a true icon, perhaps the most popular baseball player, if not athlete, in the country’s history. When ESPN asked Yu Darvish, an All-Star pitcher who has played nine seasons in the Big Leagues since coming to the States from Japan, about Ichiro’s status, Darvish responded, “Ichiro is the most famous person in Japan. He is like a god.” Former teammate Shigetoshi Hasegawa told the Washington Post, “He is not just a baseball player [in Japan]. He is like Madonna and Michael Jackson.”
When my friends and I bought the tickets for this game, it didn’t even register for us that Ichiro would be involved. He was on the Mariners’ roster, but he was 45 years old, clearly at the end of the line, and besides, we’d all seen him play against the A’s numerous times over the previous two decades.
For all the Japanese fans in the Tokyo Dome that night, though, Ichiro’s involvement was a very big deal indeed. The crowd cheered him when he took his customary position in right field in the bottom of the first. And each time he came to bat, the fans stood and chanted his name. For one of these at-bats, I was up walking around the concourse, and I couldn’t see the field past the people standing behind the last row of seats. Some craned their necks, others put their kids on their shoulders, all were anxious to see some magic from perhaps the greatest Japanese baseball player ever.
During Ichiro’s second or third at-bat, it dawned on my friends and I that we might be seeing something historic. Had the Mariners signed Ichiro just so he could play the final two games of his career in his home country? And since this was the second game of the series, were we actually watching Ichiro’s last game—in Tokyo?
THE CURTAIN CALL
It didn’t hurt matters that the game was close. When Ichiro came up with two outs in the top of the 8th inning, the score was tied 4-4, and the M’s had a runner on second base. The crowd chanted feverishly: “ICHIRO! ICHIRO!” Was it possible Ichiro would get a game-winning hit, in the last game of his career—in Tokyo? With the count one ball and two strikes, the old star sent a ground ball up the middle, as he had so many times in his career… only to have it gobbled up by A’s shortstop Marcus Semien, who easily threw on to first to end the inning. Ichiro was 0-for-4 on the night. Even baseball, the most romanticized of sports, has little time for your dreams of happy endings.
There was still magic in the air, though. The A’s returned to the dugout, and the M’s took the field, but then the other eight Seattle players walked off, leaving only Ichiro. The PA announcer called out a salute to the iconic outfielder, and as he walked toward the dugout, he waved in all directions to a crowd that screamed his name again and again. “ICHIRO! ICHIRO! ICHIRO!” At the dugout, his teammates greeted him with congratulatory hugs. Our suspicions were confirmed. We had seen the last game of Ichiro’s career—in Tokyo.
I have so many memories from the next week and a half we spent in Japan. I saw the giant Buddha at the Toadi-ji temple in Nara. I tasted grilled oysters on the island of Miyajima and gin cocktails at Nokishita711 in Kyoto. I soaked in the nearly boiling waters of the onsen baths in Kinosaki. I blinked back tears at the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima. But the thing I remember most from the Land of the Rising Sun? That would be the chorus of more than 46,000 voices at the Tokyo Dome chanting, in unison, the name of an old baseball player. Ichiro. Ichiro. Ichiro.