TOKYO — The Mariners flew 4,800 miles to the owner’s homeland, but it wasn’t quite enough to get Hiroshi Yamauchi to the ballyard to see his team play.
Club CEO Howard Lincoln told me Saturday, the Mariners’ first full day in Japan, that the 84-year-old retired chairman of Nintendo will not see in person games between his Mariners and Oakland A’s that open the major league season Thursday and Friday at the Tokyo Dome.
“He’ll be watching on TV,” Lincoln said after a press conference at the Tokyo Dome Hotel. “Given all the years he’s been involved with the Mariners, he’s really looking forward to see the team play. He’s very excited.”
Asked if age and health were the primary reasons Yamauchi will not leave his home in Kyoto for the two-hour trip, Lincoln said, “He didn’t give me a reason, he just indicated to me he’s not going to be here.
“Quite frankly, a man of his age and stature doesn’t have to explain why he’s not here.”
Well, there it is. If you’re the Mariners boss, not only is there no accountability, there’s no need to show up.
Now, being 84 provides ample reason not to bother, although I wouldn’t tell that to Tony Bennett or Betty White. Obviously, Yamauchi isn’t going to make the Mariners play better or worse either way. That’s not the point.
The Japanese are big on symbolism, as is MLB. Having the Mariners leader take his spot at this every-four-years baseball event would drawn down the mystery in Seattle and draw up the connections between the countries that grow deeper annually.
Since Masanori Murakami in 1964 became the first Japanese national to play in MLB — a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants — 43 others have followed, with another four newcomers likely to make major league rosters this year, including two in Seattle, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, both of whom are going to play here this week.
After the teams shook the jet lag with workouts at the Tokyo Dome, Ichiro met reporters in front of his locker in the cramped Tokyo Dome clubhouse, his first media chat since the team’s arrival. He sounded a little disappointed about the news of Yamauchi’s absence, but obviously wasn’t eager to talk about it.
“Yes, of course, I would like to play (in front of Yamauchi),” he said through his interpreter. “At the same time, I don’t want to put pressure on his back. That’s a tough question.”
It wasn’t a tough question for Yamauchi when he learned that Ichiro, in the late 1990s while tearing up Japan’s pro baseball leagues, expressed a desire to someday play baseball in the U.S. Upset that the Mariners did not aggressively pursue Hideo Nomo, the pitcher with the corkscrew windup who won 123 games for six teams from 1996-2008, Yamauchi asked that the Mariners sign Ichiro.
They did, and the deal worked well for all parties. Ichiro was in 2001 named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and in 2012 is in the final season of a four-year deal that will pay him $18 million.
Besides breaking multiple MLB records for hits, Ichiro broke through a barrier beyond being the first position player to land a U.S. roster spot. He was the first Japanese to become a global pop icon. The attraction was still visible Saturday after he left the clubhouse when as many as 100 media members stood behind a rope barrier in a hallway that led to a waiting car, recording every stride while he passed in silence.
Yamauchi too, broke a barrier in 1992 when he became the first –and still only — non-North American to own an MLB franchise. To see both pioneers together at the Tokyo Dome would have made a splendid metaphor for Japan’s broadening international cultural impact as well as for MLB’s global diversity.
By Ichiro’s own account, the week of his professional homecoming is big for him.
“It’s a special event,” he said in the clubhouse, where a sumo match on TV drew the attention of teammates. “It’s important for us — probably a once-in-a-lifetime event. We never get opportunities like this.
“As you know, we were going to go in 2003, but we didn’t make it (terrorism fears over the start of the Iraq war canceled the trip). It’s my 12th year in the big leagues. Representing major league baseball in (my own) country is important to me.”
Asked about what virtue of Japanese baseball he would like to see adopted by MLB players, Ichiro, per usual, deferred a direct answer.
“I can give you hints, but I can’t give you answers — we have to compete against them (in exhibition games),” he said. “You look at how big and strong and fast (American players) are. We (Japanese) look at them and ourselves, and we ask how can we compete against those guys? You starting thinking about it: This is what I can do, this is what they can’t do.”
Even as his game fades due to age, no one in modern baseball history has done it quite like Ichiro. In another part of baseball, the same could be said of Yamauchi. For the two of them to have saluted one another publicly would have been a big deal for Japan, and a cool deal for Asian-centric Seattle.
But Yamauchi has his reasons. And the Mariners, once again, have a lost opportunity. An exciting young team may make the symbolism moot for most fans. But these fans have been waiting on an exciting young team for nearly as long as they’ve been waiting to see an ownership care as much as they do.
The wait is over for one, and we’ll start to see about the other this week.