Ichiro Suzuki batting practice
Ichiro Suzuki during batting practice in MLB’s Opening Day game on March 20, 2019_Kyodo

It was opening day for Major League Baseball, and the Seattle Mariners were taking on the Oakland Athletics in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

The A’s were winning 5-4 in the top of the fourth, and Ichiro Suzuki was coming up to bat. The future first-ballot hall of famer extended his right arm, holding his bat straight up, and awaited the pitch.

Six people on the 2019 Oakland roster were not even born when Ichiro started his career as a rookie for the Orix BlueWave in 1992. The hair on his head and face was trimmed nearly to the skin, but even that couldn’t hide the gray of a grizzled 45-year-old veteran.

Ichiro in the batters boxOpening day 2019
Ichiro awaiting a pitch at the opening day match up between the Mariners and the A’s. (photo by author)

Ichiro took a first-pitch strike, worked it to a 3-2 count, hitting a ball off his leg twice, before ripping a ball foul down the right field line, electrifying the crowd, all of whom were essentially willing Ichiro to get a hit – one more to the 4,367 hits in his professional baseball career.

Ichiro walked, and then, as the Mariner’s took the field for the bottom of the fourth, Ichiro jogged back in, embraced teammates around third base and entered the dugout to the applause of the fans.

I was one of those 45,787 fans, wondering if we had seen the last appearance of Ichiro on the field. Joining an American Chamber of Commerce of Japan event, I got a unique behind-the-scenes look at Major League Baseball. Jim Small, Senior Vice President of International Business at Major League Baseball, took us on a tour of Tokyo Dome: the press room, the bullpen and the field to watch batting practice.

Ichiro on lineup
Peeking inside the Mariners’ bullpen, with the game’s lineup written on the board. Ichiro batting ninth.

We watched Ichiro’s replacement in right field, Dan Vogelbach slash balls in the batting cage as Small pointed to the red patches in the green sea of artificial turf. He told us that two tons of clay on the mound and around the bases had been shipped in from the United States….by plane…after issues at the Panama Canal thwarted the forward progress of the freighter ship.

Getting the proper clay to Japan for two exhibition games and two official games was vital to Major League Baseball (MLB). With tens of millions of dollars of assets on the field in the form of professional baseball players, MLB didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened to Robin Ventura of the Mets, when they took on the Chicago Cubs in Japan in 2000, the first time any regular-season games had taken place outside North America. According to the New York Times, Ventura slipped twice in the batter’s box during a game, the Japanese clay being of a looser, drier consistency.

When we got into a meeting room for an Inside Baseball talk before the game, Small got down to business. Japan is a critical market, and a major source of revenue for MLB, whether it is media (e.g.: streaming of MLB games), sponsorships (e.g.: commercials or corporations that want to market themselves using the MLB logo or Japanese players in MLB uniforms), consumer products (e.g.: jerseys and caps), and events (e.g.: exhibition or regular-season games).

And MLB, like so many other businesses, want to grow smartly around the world. According to Small, investing in markets like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America is a no brainer – baseball is a popular part of the culture and so the fandom and infrastructure are in place for MLB to plug and play. That’s why MLB is holding 2019 regular season games not only in Japan, but also in Mexico.

MLB is also looking at emerging markets, those with strong economies and perceived  to have the potential to grow the sport. Thus, games between teams in one of the fiercest and famed rivalries in baseball – The New York Yankees and The Boston Red Sox – will take place in London, England on June 29-30.

Jim Small on Bloomberg

It’s unclear whether baseball will take off in England – there is so much competition for the English sports fans’ mindshare and wallet. But MLB believes that the Asian emerging markets show tremendous potential for growth, particularly China and India.

China: As China prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Small told us that leaders in China recognized that they were not competitive in baseball compared to its Asian neighbors, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They saw baseball as an Asian sport and they wanted to be better. Today, 650,000 viewers watch each MLB game broadcasted in China, in Chinese, which actually dwarfs the Japanese market. Some 300 stores sell MLB goods. And there are actually 7 Chinese nationals in the farm systems of major league baseball teams. China may not make the top 12 for the Olympics in Tokyo, but they are determined to catch up to their Asian brethren.

India: In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates created some media buzz by announcing the signing of two pitchers from India to minor league contracts. As interest by Indians in American baseball has grown, so too has MLB’s interest in growing the India market. As Small explained, India’s love for cricket is an advantage, particularly from a talent perspective, as the throwing and catching movements, on the whole, are similar to those in baseball. But perhaps even more intriguing is this: India has an incredibly high percentage of people who own connected devices like smartphones and tablets – 90%. That’s 90% of 1.1 billion people, of which 89% interact on social media. That’s the kind of market where the right steps can grow brand awareness very quickly.

Ichiro maybe saying goodbye to baseball. But the MLB is saying hello, konnichiwa, namaste and ni hao to the world.

(Oh by the way, Seattle won 9-7.)

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