Mariners prepare for an unusual series of globe-trotting games
PEORIA, Ariz. - The most widely-traveled of the Seattle Mariners might just be Tom Wilhelmsen, the 28-year-old reliever who quit baseball in 2004 to see the world.
Now that he’s back in baseball, he’s about to see more of the world – with the Mariners on their season-opening visit to Japan.
The team left for Tokyo on Thursday, and while few outside of Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki knew what to expect, it was Wilhelmsen who’d found reason to fret.
In seeing Europe and the Americas, the big right-hander had begun a collection of sand and earth, small vials of each taken from beaches around the globe, places he and wife Cassie most enjoyed.
“I’d love to have a little sand or maybe dirt from the mound, but I really don’t know if that would be seen as disrespectful or not,” Wilhelmsen said.
Wilhelmsen had actually read quite a bit about Japan before getting on the plane with the Mariners. That one question, however, hadn’t yet been answered.
“I’ll have to ask,” he said. “The one thing you never want to do is offend your hosts.”
Most of the Mariners hadn’t looked much further ahead than getting their passports to the team. Asked if he was going to take any of the several tours the team will make available, first baseman Justin Smoak shook his head.
“My wife is looking into all that,” Smoak said.
Ichiro, who has never played in his homeland with the Seattle Mariners, didn’t want to talk about the trip – at least not with Northwest media.
Asked for a group interview with beat writers and columnists last week, Ichiro declined to make himself available. Similarly, Iwakuma didn’t want to talk.
That left Kawasaki – who is always happy to speak.
“This was one of my goals: Coming here, making the team and going to Japan. This is one goal that I’ve accomplished and I’m very happy about that.”
Since Ichiro wouldn’t say, Kawasaki was asked what the response of Japanese fans might be to the return of a baseball icon to his home country.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you,” Kawasaki said. “But I could tell you this – if I was a fan, I’d be the first one to buy a ticket and be there.”
Not surprisingly, Mariners manager Eric Wedge and his coaching staff have had to plan for this trip for months – and for its aftermath.
“It’s complicated, but it’s an honor and should be a great experience,” Wedge said. “But any time you pack up after spring training, go play games that matter, then come back to Arizona for more exhibition games, there are adjustments you have to make.”
The Mariners will be making them.
When the Mariners and Oakland Athletics leave Tokyo on March 30, the Athletics will return home, play their Pacific Coast League team (Sacramento) and then the San Franisco Giants in an exhibition series.
Seattle? The team will fly from Tokyo back to its spring training complex, play five more Cactus League games and then fly to Oakland to resume the regular season there April 6.
“It’s tough getting all your starting pitchers working in rotation,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “It’s certainly different than any camp I’ve ever been part of.
“We set it up from the beginning, though, and we’ve tweaked it as we’ve gone along. Felix (Hernandez) will start the opener for us on March 28, then the first game in Oakland on (April 6).
“You could say there are complications, yes,” Willis said, laughing.
Outfielder Mike Carp echoed most of his teammates when asked about the trip schedule.
“It’s going to be strange playing two regular-season games, flying back and then playing five games that don’t count,” he said. “But it’s going to be a great experience, too.”
Felix may have been as excited as any Mariners player about opening the 2012 season in Tokyo.
“With Ichiro, Iwakuma and Kawasaki there and all their fans? It’s going to be crazy,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know what to expect, but it will definitely be loud.”