This is the week the world turns for the Seattle Mariners.
Their spring training schedule draws three blank calendar squares beginning Thursday, then resumes with two exhibition games in Japan, followed by an off day, followed by two regular-season games at the Toyko Dome, followed by another off day, at which point they’ll be back in Arizona for five more exhibition games preceding the domestic opener at Oakland.
Just thinking about it makes me dizzy, and I’m not even on board for the trip to Japan. For that matter, the Mariners’ television broadcast duo of Dave Sims and Mike Blowers aren’t on board, either. Sims and Blowers will remain in Bellevue to provide voice-over accounts of the games via satellite.
First pitch for the opener – a week from Wednesday – is at 3:10 a.m. (PDT), which doesn’t sound unreasonable. What’s unreasonable is the a.m. after the 3:10.
I know Bud Selig never will win any popularity contests, but I happen to endorse most of the commissioner’s ideas. Interleague play? Check.
Wild cards in the playoffs? Check. An All-Star Game of potential consequence? Check.
I’m less enthralled with Selig’s determination to turn Opening Day into Opening Morning In the Middle of the Graveyard Shift. Some traditions are worth preserving. The traditional Monday matinee opener at Cincinnati, where the Reds were home for the only game on the schedule, was a tradition worth preserving.
Walls draped with red, white and blue bunting is another Opening Day tradition worth preserving, but the only bunting expected in Tokyo will be the kind that advances a base runner into scoring position.
And yet, despite my misgivings about the globalization of Opening Day, the Mariners’ Tokyo trip was necessary. There are times baseball fans must acknowledge realities that supersede what former commissioner Fay Vincent once called “our modest little sporting event.”
Vincent offered that reference after postponing the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, ravaged by an earthquake that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. The Loma Prieta quake killed 62 and left thousands of Bay Area residents homeless. Given that context, the Fall Classic was, indeed, a modest little sporting event.
The Mariners will arrive in Tokyo 54 weeks after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake wrought unimaginable devastation to Japan. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that helped cause the meltdowns of three Level 7 nuclear reactors.
It’s been 12 months, and life goes on. We forget that 15,854 people were killed, that almost 27,000 were injured, that approximately 1 million buildings – think about this: 1 million – either were destroyed or damaged.
“In the 65 years after the end of World War II,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said last March, “this is the toughest and most difficult crisis for Japan.”
The Mariners obviously won’t save any lives by playing a couple of official American League games against the Oakland A’s in Japan, but the goodwill engendered by their trip will be priceless. And while the now-it-counts, now-it-doesn’t, now-it-does-again flavor of the early season schedule will be a hassle for the teams – it’ll be a hassle for all of us who treasure the sanctity of Opening Day – let’s not forget the distinction between a minor inconvenience and a major tragedy.
Besides, it’s not as if a trip to Japan will doom the Mariners’ playoff hopes. The Mets began their 2000 season against the Cubs in Tokyo, and went on to compete in the World Series. (The Cubs? They finished in last place, 32 games under .500 and 30 games out of first. In other words, the post-Japan phase of their season went typically.)
The Yankees began their 2004 season against Tampa Bay in Tokyo, and the eventual American League East champions went on to win 101 games. In 2008, the Red Sox opened against Oakland in Tokyo. They ended up 95-67, worth a wild-card berth.
In all of these cases, the trip to Japan made for some awkward scheduling back in the States: a handful of exhibition games after the regular-season motor was revved up.
Everybody survived, if memory serves.
As for the Mariners, their Tokyo visit is especially profound because it will be Japan’s first – and, likely, last – opportunity to see Ichiro Suzuki swing a bat in a major league game. Ichiro is the ultimate contradiction: an intensely private athlete who feeds on attention.
I won’t be surprised if he does something special to help the Mariners win one of those games against Oakland. Heck, I won’t be surprised if he does something special to help the Mariners win both of them.
I’ll only be surprised if Ichiro does something special while I’m awake.
But the Mariners’ goodwill trip is too substantial for us to bemoan an Opening Day pitch delivered at 3:10 a.m. I am reminded of what Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) said in “Casablanca.”
Our problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.