Japan new to many Mariners, old to some
Ichiro, Kawasaki, Iwakuma head home, others first-time visitors
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Thirty Mariners players and a traveling party of 110 coaches, staffers and family members boarded a charter flight for Tokyo on Thursday as the club headed to its first Japan Opening Series appearance.
For three Mariners players -- 10-time All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, new utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma -- it's a homecoming trip to their native land.
But for the rest of Seattle's squad, the 13-hour flight will take them to a new experience in a unique environment, as the Mariners embark on a week-long stint in Japan that concludes with a two-game season-opening set against the A's at the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday at 3:10 a.m. PT and Thursday at 2:10 a.m.
"I think it's going to be crazy," said Felix Hernandez, who'll be the Opening Day starter. "We've got a lot of Japanese guys here. We've got Ichi, who is a big star there. It's going to be a good experience and it's going to be fun."
Ichiro figures to be the main draw as an iconic sports figure in his country, but the 38-year-old kept a low profile leading up to the event. He didn't do any interviews this week, though he was upbeat about the chance to return to Japan for the first time with the Mariners when asked about it early in camp.
"We've never had this opportunity before, so it's new for me and new for the team," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "This is something we'll probably do once in a lifetime, so I look forward to that and would like to take advantage of it."
Iwakuma and Kawasaki, newcomers to Major League Baseball this spring, both said they're eager to play in front of their home crowds again. Iwakuma, one of Japan's premier starters over the past decade, will pitch in the Mariners' second exhibition game, against the Yomiuri Giants on Monday at 3:04 a.m.
"I'm really excited and looking forward to pitching in Japan so I can show the Seattle fans how I perform," Iwakuma said through interpreter Daisuke Sekiba. "I want to show how much I have and that I'm eager to pitch for them."
Kawasaki, an eight-time All-Star shortstop in Japan, said he's "thankful from the bottom of my heart" for the opportunity to make the traveling squad for the Japan series.
Most of the rest of the Mariners' players will be experiencing Japan for the first time, and they hope to take in some of the culture as well as play the two exhibition and two regular-season games.
"Very eager. Excited. A little nervous," said reliever Tom Wilhelmsen. "A bunch of different things."
"It's a place I've always been fascinated by and wanted to go see, so it's definitely a unique opportunity, and I want to take advantage of it," said left fielder Mike Carp. "And bringing Ichiro back will be an experience all on its own. I'm sure it'll be pretty crazy."
Outfielder Casper Wells has been at the adjacent locker to Kawasaki all spring and has gotten to know the outgoing newcomer, who busts into the clubhouse saying greetings in English and Spanish each morning, as he's learning bits of both languages.
"It'll be interesting to see how much celebrity status he and Ichiro have over there," said Wells. "Hopefully they'll take us out to some cool hot spots."
Kawasaki said he has "no expectations" of how he'll be greeted by Japanese fans, but clearly he and his two teammates will be the center of much attention. Ichiro generally avoids the limelight as much as possible, so that will be something to watch.
Japanese baseball fans tend to be very boisterous, banging drums and utilizing noisemakers during games. That's what Mariners infielder Chone Figgins remembers from being part of a touring All-Star team that played in Japan in 2006 when he was with the Angels.
"Everybody cheers the whole game," Figgins said. "That's the one thing, they go non-stop. No matter which team is hitting, everybody is cheering. They don't even know who you are and they're cheering for you, so it's pretty cool."
But Kawasaki indicated that might not be the case for the regular-season games.
"In Japan in general, they use a lot of instruments to root for their team," said the 30-year-old infielder. "This time, I don't know if they'll allow that. Hopefully they can enjoy the sound of the bat and the sound of ourselves on the field."
Kawasaki has already made some noise with the Mariners. The 5-foot-10, 165-pounder made an instant impression on his teammates with his vocal presence during workouts from his first day on the field. He shouts constantly in Japanese during infield drills, rattling phrases no one else understands while occasionally tossing in a name or English word he's picked up.
It's an endearing trait, and one that leads the Mariners to wonder what they'll see when they play the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants in the two exhibitions.
"I'm just excited to go over there and see the Tokyo Dome and how the Japanese players play and go about their business on the field," said pitcher Blake Beavan. "We get to watch Kawasaki every day, and hopefully those guys are like him, because they'll be a treat to watch."