King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Baseball dares its fans to get up in the wee hours to see Opening Day. We're up to the challenge. A coffee-fueled diary.

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4:02 a.m. CST: Ah, Opening Day. The green grass, the pennants whipping in the breeze, the white uniforms shining in the crisp spring sunshine. There’s something magical about the return of the sights and sounds of the summer game each year, something holiday-like in that traditional weekday afternoon opener. In some cities there’s a parade beforehand. No sport does Opening Day like baseball.

And with the possible exception of hockey, which refuses to do anything significant to free itself from the low-scoring, unwatchable era it’s mired in, no sport dares its fans to stay fans like baseball does. Which is why baseball has interrupted its steroid scandal long enough to move Opening Day half a world away to Tokyo and scheduled the first pitch of the first game, New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays, to be thrown around 5 a.m. local time in those teams’ hometowns on a Tuesday morning. Opening Day was in Japan in 2000, and it was supposed to be last year too, but the trip was canceled because of the Iraq war.

Merchandise beyond Ichiro and Hideki and Katsuo Matsui posters must be sold to Japanese teenagers, baseball is saying to its fan base. If you want to watch the season begin, set your alarm and tune in to ESPN2, where billiard and poker reruns are being interrupted long enough to bring you the National Pastime’s 2004 debut.

I am up to the challenge. Dare me to be a fan, Mr. Selig? OK, I’m game. I live in the Central Time Zone so I’ve set my alarm for 4 a.m., rousted myself, hit the button on the coffee maker and settled into my favorite chair. The Devil Rays are enough to put me to sleep in the best of circumstances, so the season is opening with a fight — to stay awake.

I understand the motive behind globalization. You have to keep growing the business, as they say in business, and that means opening new markets, though as Selig, the commissioner, has made clear during his “our business is awful so we need a salary cap” campaign of the last decade, there’s plenty of growth possible in North America. But all the same, I get the idea. What I don’t get is why regular-season games have to be played in Japan. If the Japanese are non-fans of American baseball, they’re not following the pennant races here. Would they not be satisfied with exhibition games until they do begin following them?



Why force American fans to get up at an ungodly hour to see the season open and throw off the rhythm of the start of the season for two teams when it isn’t necessary to achieve the goal of bringing real live American League players to Japan? The Yanks and Devil Rays have essentially had to cut short their spring training by a week, and spend two days traveling, twice, in the days before the season starts, days everyone else uses to play games, get their pitchers in rhythm, etc. All to create an event that would have had a similar splash in Japan if it had come off a month ago.

And why the Devil Rays? It’s as though baseball were saying to the Japanese people, “Here’s some baseball — and the Devil Rays!” Is the idea to spotlight the Yankees, to concentrate the market on Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui “Godzilla” merch? Are the Devil Rays the Washington Generals here? No one is going to be distracted from buying a Yankees hat by the charms of Aubrey Huff and Carl Crawford, I assume.

Just wondering about these things. The mind wanders at 4 a.m. The coffee’s ready and the game’s starting. “Baseball is America’s pastime,” an announcer is saying. “But it’s Japan’s passion.” A shot of the Tokyo Dome. The Yankees are the visiting team, but they’re wearing their home pinstripes. Ah, tradition. ESPN’s announcers aren’t in Tokyo. They’re not exactly being upfront about it, but they’re sitting in a studio in Connecticut. Peter Gammons just let slip an “over there” when talking about Japanese baseball.

Opening Day!

What was that noise? I think there’s a prowler.

5:30 a.m. CST: The Yankees and Devil Rays are plastered with advertising. This astounding fact is going uncommented upon by the announcers. There are no advertisements on baseball uniforms. This isn’t European soccer or NASCAR. But both teams have large sleeve patches and helmet decals advertising a copier company.

Maybe this whole Japan opening thing is just a diversion, a distraction from the historic introduction of advertising pollution on the traditionally sacrosanct ground of major league uniforms. Maybe that’s the real agenda here.

In the top of the first inning, Matsui doubles up the gap in right-center for the first hit. He’s a huge star in Japan. That’ll move some T-shirts!

After Rodriguez makes his Yankees debut by striking out, Jason Giambi, aided by the dome launching pad that announcer Harold Reynolds says even turned him into a power hitter when he played exhibitions there, hits what, in less enlightened times, used to be called a “Chinese home run,” and the Yankees take a 2-0 lead.

6 a.m. CST: Oh, great, a “special edition” of “Cold Pizza” follows the game on ESPN2. That means if I fall asleep during this game — always a danger when the Devil Rays are playing, never mind when a game starts at 4 in the morning — I’m in danger of waking up in the middle of an interview with “baseball superfan Nick Lachey,” of explaining to Jessica Simpson that Chicken of the Sea isn’t chicken fame.

Neither starting pitcher, Mike Mussina and Victor Zambrano, looks sharp, but they’ve been aided by some at-’em balls and it’s still 2-0 in the fourth until Rays catcher Toby Hall ties the game with a two-run bloop single, then proceeds to get thrown out trying to take second on the throw home. Despite all that excitement, I’m really, really sorry I didn’t go to the store last night to stock up on coffee. I only had enough for two cups, which I’ve been nursing.

A-Rod has made a couple of nice plays on grounders at third, one moving to his left and one charging. I’m not sure I’d have chosen to get up at 4 just to see them, but they were nice plays.

The ballboys and ballgirls — they may just be ballgirls, I can’t get a good look — wear white, two-flap batting helmets and look really goofy.

Oh, great. The baby woke up early. I’ll get you for this, Selig.

6:30 a.m. CST: Baseball games in Japan are just different than they are in the U.S. and Canada. There are all sorts of weird crowd reactions going on in this game, cheering at odd times, chants and songs, guys yelling out cheers. All of this is going uncommented-upon by the announcing trio of Karl Ravech, Peter Gammons and Reynolds. That’s because they’re not in Japan, so they can’t really tell us about the atmosphere in the ballpark.

I think ESPN is pinching pennies by not sending announcers to Tokyo. This isn’t some World Cup qualifying game, it’s Opening Day of the baseball season. At least send someone to report from the crowd, tell us what’s going on in the dome, what it’s like to be at the game.

Things are dire, journalistically speaking, when I’m advocating for a sideline reporter.

In the fifth-inning Rodriguez doubles down the right-field line for his first hit as a Yankee. Gary Sheffield drives him in with a check-swing double and the Yankees lead 3-2. Rays shortstop Julio Lugo saves another run with a nice catch on Ruben Sierra’s pop to shallow center, which means that Jose Cruz Jr.’s homer on an 0-2 pitch leading off the bottom of the inning ties the game.

Tino Martinez, now officially in the twilight of his career, follows that with a double and Mussina’s in trouble. Lugo’s double over Kenny Lofton’s head in center field gives the Rays the lead, but a reeling Mussina stays in. “This is still a spring training game in a lot of ways,” Reynolds says, meaning that Mussina needs to get his work in.

Hall drills a double past Rodriguez to chase Mussina and give Tampa Bay a 5-3 lead.

Have I mentioned how ugly the Devil Rays’ green uniforms are? I mean this year?

7 a.m. CST: In the seventh, Yanks reliever Paul Quantrill goes out with an injury after colliding with Rodriguez on a bunt play, Rocco Baldelli reaching safely. Felix Heredia comes in to pitch, has a pickoff throw missed by Giambi for a two-base error, then gives up an RBI single to Huff and a two-run homer to the rejuvenated Tino Martinez.

How about those Devil Rays! It’s 8-3! What a genius move by Major League Baseball to send this exciting, powerhouse team over for the Japanese fans to see.

The 55,000 fans in the house are about a week’s worth of home crowds in St. Petersburg. Japan is a baseball-mad country, but are these baseball fans in the crowd? They cheer madly for a Matsui foul pop wide of third, and groan as one as the ball settles into Damian Rolls’ glove. I know they love Godzilla, but have they ever seen a baseball game before?

I thought MLB was just trying to sell American baseball to people who are already baseball fans. If the Japanese fans are this unsophisticated, if they’re non-fans just out for the special event of two American games being played in their country, then Major League Baseball has a lot of selling to do. Baseball’s strength is its everyday-ness, not special events. It takes a long time to make fans out of people who cheer foul balls. It’s too early in this process to be hijacking regular-season games overseas.

Whoa, I’m fading. I’m going for that second cup of coffee.

It’s the eighth inning and Ravech has just mentioned the advertising on the uniforms for the first time. He says it’s just for these two games and asks his partners if they think there’s going to be a day when there are regularly ads on uniforms.

“I think everything in sports is available for sale,” Peter Gammons says.

That reminds me to mention that naming rights for this column are still available for sale.

The Devil Rays win 8-3, and move into first place in the American League East. I’ve got to get out of here before “Cold Pizza” starts.

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