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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Paul Mccartney one on one

It was 50 years ago, when Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play. (It’s the album’s 50th anniversary!)

It was 51 years ago, when the Beatles came to Japan to play.

It was 53 years ago, in the year of the Tokyo Olympics, when the Beatles had the top five on the Billboard Hot 100, the only act ever to hold the top five spots:

  • No. 1, “Can’t Buy Me Love”
  • No. 2, “Twist and Shout”
  • No. 3, “She Loves You”
  • No. 4, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
  • No. 5, “Please Please Me”

I have written about The Beatles impact on the time surrounding the 1964 Olympics, not only on Japan but on people around the world. In 1964, Olympians coming to Tokyo, particularly from Europe and the United States, knew of Beatlemania, sang their songs, and saw on TV the screaming hordes of girls chasing the four lads from Liverpool wherever they went. There was even a group called The Tokyo Beatles!

On April 27, I got a tiny taste .

In 1966, the Beatles played the more intimate Budokan, built to showcase judo in the Tokyo Olympiad. However, I saw Paul McCartney perform in the Tokyo Dome, a baseball stadium not built for concert acoustics. But that was OK! We were in the presence of the Walrus!

The concert began with the most iconic of pop music sounds – the jarring clanging opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

And then Sir Paul played for over two hours, ending in the communal “lah lah lah, lah lah lah lah” of Hey Jude.

When he left the stage, we knew he’d be back for an encore. When McCartney re-emerged, he played the most covered single of all time, his very own “Yesterday.” He could have easily walked off the stage and ended the night on a high. But he then barked out the reprise to “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”. He could have ended the night with the lyrics, “We hope you have enjoyed the show….we’re sorry but it’s time to go,” but he didn’t.

Next up was a song from his Wings days, “Hi Hi Hi”. You knew he couldn’t end on a Wings song, but he took an interesting turn by celebrating the birthday of a band member with, of course, the Beatles upbeat song, “Birthday”.

I’ve never been to a Beatles concert, but there must be an appropriate way to end one, and that would be with the “Medley” from side 2 of my favorite Beatles’ album – Abbey Road. I was ecstatic! The perfect finish! After the pulsating drum solo, McCartney brought it all to an end with these lyrics:

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make

McCartney is 74. And yet, he played for a solid 2 hours and 40 minutes. There were times when his voice cracked, and some of the faster songs felt slower than normal….which is OK because this is Japan where people stay seated….after all, the average age in the Dome must have been about 64.

As my wife screamed “Paul!”, and McCartney soaked in the applause, he told the crowd he loved us all – “Minna-san daisuki!” And maybe he says that to all the crowds. But his encore went on and on, lingering as if he had little desire to depart. Even after his final song, he stayed on stage to say good bye before walking off, stage left.

I experienced only a tingling of Beatlemania that the Olympians of 1964 did, but maybe, I’m amazed…at the way you pulled me out of time.

 

Paul McCartney One on One Tour T-Shirt
My T-shirt!

Buster Douglas knocks out Tyson

He gave up 5 inches in height, over 11 pounds in weight and 12 inches in reach to the contender, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the 23-year heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, was going to win, and win easily. Journeyman, Buster Douglas had fought well in previous years to deserve a shot, but little else.

In fact, very few betting houses accepted bets on the fight. One that did had Tyson, the undefeated champion from New York, a 42-1 favorite. But on this day yesterday, February 11, 26 years ago, the son of a boxer from Columbus, Ohio, delighted 40,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome, and shocked the boxing world. As ringside commentator, Jim Lampley said at the end of the fight, “Let’s go ahead and call it the biggest upset in the history of championship fights. Say it now gentlemen, ‘James Buster Douglas – undisputed heavyweight champion of the world’.”

Boxing history was made. But why was it made in Tokyo? According to Japan hand, Robert Whiting, holding the fight in Japan was an attempt to bring excitement to a fight that was expected to be a Tyson massacre, at a time when Japan was the hottest economy in the world.

Buster Douglas knocks out Tyson 2

They held the fight in Tokyo for economic reasons. Most fight fans in the U.S. thought the match with Douglas would be inconsequential — just a warm-up for an anticipated match with Evander Holyfield. Holding it in Japan would generate more interest. Moreover, at that time, Japan was at the peak of its economic power, buying up expensive properties like Rockefeller Plaza and Columbia Studios.

Staging a heavyweight title match would be yet another important status symbol. The Nikkei had just hit its all-time high two months earlier and the yen was the world’s most powerful currency. So it made economic sense for Don King and the rest of the Tyson team to hold the fight there.

Here it is, the end of that incredulous fight. Were you there?