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Mariners trip to Japan a hit in more ways than one

Coming Home. Japanese journalists focus their cameras on Mariner and native son Ichiro Suzuki before practice this week at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan.
Itsuo Inouye
AP Photo
Coming Home. Japanese journalists focus their cameras on Mariner and native son Ichiro Suzuki before practice this week at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan.

The Mariners return from Japan Friday with one win and one loss under their belt, following the two-game series with the A's in Tokyo that kicked off their 2012 season.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says, overall, the trip was a success. He spent the week with the team in Japan.

Why they went

Major League Baseball comes to Japan every four years. Art says you have to think of baseball as a multi-national corporation and Japan as their top customer.

But this time around, there was more to the visit.

Before the first two regular season games this week, some Mariners and A's players put on a baseball clinic for youngsters in the port city of Ishinomaki, which was heavily damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

"I think there was a real bonding that went on between Major League Baseball and the Japanese Baseball League and the Japanese people. So I think that is an important aspect of this. And the inconvenience to two teams is a relatively small consequence for the benefits gained."

Hero's welcome for Ichiro

Art says the enthusiasm remains high in Japan for native son Ichiro Suzuki, even after the 11 years he's spent in the United States.

"When you see the paparazzi following him and the stir he creates wherever he appears in public, it doesn't look like he's diminished much. It's not the same as it was in 2001 when he first came to the U.S. and was the American League's Most Valuable Player and won the Rookie of the Year award and the batting title. That was a special moment because Ichiro was the first person that Japan had ever exported who became a widely accepted global pop icon."

Art says Ichiro making it big in America was a big deal because the Japanese people didn't like their image as being a bunch of worker bees who were making cars and electronics.

"Ichiro was the guy who sort of validated their existence on the global stage. Many people will always remember Ichiro for that virtue. They certainly celebrated him readily and passionately in the games at the Tokyo Dome as well as his infrequent public appearances because there is no one like Ichiro in modern Japanese culture."

Mariners test new lineup

Art says it's too soon to tell how changing Ichiro from leadoff to third in the batting order will impact the team. In the opening game on Tuesday, Ichiro had four hits and the team won 3-1. In Game 2 on Wednesday, Ichiro went 0-4 and the Mariners lost 4-1.

Art says you can't tell much from two games, but he likes the fact that Ichiro is following the hot bat of 2nd baseman Dustin Ackley.

"The idea here is that the more quality hitters you can put back-to-back in the top of the lineup, the better chance you have of stimulating the offense - which is what the Mariners desperately need. Seeing Ichiro hit behind Ackley in the third spot is probably the best use of his talents at age 38. I think this idea was long overdue and I think the Mariners are going to see steady progress - not enough to contend but enough to be competitive, I think, in this year."

You can read more of Art Thiel's dispatches from Japan at Sportspress Northwest.



Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.