TOKYO -- Mariners players Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and George Sherrill got a different view of Japan on Monday. A little sideways it turned out, with hearts in their throats, as they received a thrill-of-a-lifetime ride on a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter.
The Mariners are in Japan for the Opening Series against the A's, as well as two exhibition games against Japanese teams this week. Before taking on the Yomiuri Giants on Monday night, the trio spent five hours visiting U.S. soldiers and their families at Camp Zama and enjoyed a helicopter ride back and forth from Tokyo to the base about 30 miles south.
It was a pretty tame ride over, something Smoak mentioned to one of the pilots during one of the autograph sessions at the base.
So on the way back, the pilot let things out a bit ... and the result was three white-knuckled and very adrenalized Mariners, who stumbled out of the chopper back upon landing at the Hardy Barracks in Tokyo.
"That was one of the coolest, scariest experiences I've had In my life," said Ackley, who clutched the shoulder harness strapped across his chest during the entire 20-minute flight. "I don't know how to describe it. I wanted to do it, but I didn't want to do it. And now I'm really glad I did."
Smoak couldn't stop laughing after it was over.
"We were up, down, sideways. I thought we were going to go backwards," said the big first baseman. "I could have sworn we were going to go upside down that one time. Ackley has his lunch in his throat right now. He was sweating. That was top of the list, right there. That was awesome."
The Mariners were given a tour of Camp Zama, then did a question-and-answer session with about 100 service members in a gym. Afterward, they gave autographs to everyone in attendance, headed to the camp PX for another autograph session and then met with the base commander and crew of the Blackhawks.
There are about 2,000 soldiers stationed at the base and some are big baseball fans. Matthew Martel, a counter-intelligence special agent at the base, wore a Mariners cap and T-shirt and asked several questions of the players during the Q&A session.
"My mom has a picture of me when I was like 8 months old on the Kingdome mound with Mark Langston," said Martel, 28, who was raised in Federal Way, Wash. "When I heard the guys were coming out here, I just got all excited. I really wasn't expecting anyone to come out here, so it's really great they took time out to do this."
Martel has been at Camp Zama since September and will be stationed there through 2013. He's an assistant coach on a high school baseball team in the Tokyo area and an acknowledged Mariners fanatic.
"Last year, I was actually in Tucson, [Ariz.], doing training and Dustin was still with the Rainiers, so I was able to get an autograph from him a week before I got called up," he said. "I gave that one to my brother for his birthday, but this one is for me. I'm keeping this one."
The positive vibes went both directions during the visit. Smoak has an uncle in Charleston, S.C., who works as a transport loader for the Army, so he's got a built-in respect for the work being done.
All three players expressed their gratitude to the service men and women they greeted during the day.
"Just to meet the troops is a tremendous honor," said Sherrill, a veteran reliever back for his second stint with the Mariners. "They put their lives on the line day-in and day-out for us, so it's just nice to get a chance to meet them."
And in the end? All three players got to sit for a few minutes in the cockpit of the Blackhawk, which proved to be a tough squeeze for the 6-foot-5 Smoak.
Then they strapped in and hung on for the ride of their lives, zipping over Tokyo at all angles. The view of the huge city, sprawling for miles in all directions, was incredible in itself. But when the Blackhawk turned into a mega-roller-coaster ride, that was the topper for three Mariners who won't soon forget the entire experience.
"From meeting all those guys to the helicopter ride, it was awesome," said Ackley. "That was one of the coolest days I've had in my life."