Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tar Heels Play the Tokyo Dome

I'm a huge fan of Japan, baseball, and the North Carolina Tar Heels. It's a rarity when I can combine all three, but that happened last week, when MLB officially kicked off the 2012 season in Tokyo. Fortunately, I was able to make the trip to Japan to see the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics play a two-game series as well as exhibition games against the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants.

The Seattle Mariners have two players who were stars during their college days at Carolina, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager.

Seattle's starting second baseman, Dustin Ackley is a native of Walnut Cove, North Carolina, and had a record-setting career in Chapel Hill. In Tokyo, the Mariners' first-round pick (second overall) in the 2009 MLB draft had a couple of good games. Ackley was 0-3 as the Mariners lost in an exhibition against the Hanshin Tigers on March 25, but the next day he connected for a solo home run and a triple in Seattle's 9-3 loss to the Yomiuri Giants.

Ackley began the 2012 MLB season in fine fashion, going 2 for 5 with a home run, 2 RBI, and 2 runs scored in the opener against the A's. Since he drove in the game-winning run in the top of the 11th, I'll overlook the throwing error he had in this game. In game two of the MLB series, Ackley's bat was a silent as his teammates', as he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.

Ackley rounds third after his home run against the A's

The Mariners selected Kyle Seager of Kannapolis, North Carolina, in the third round of the 2009 draft. Seager was 0 for 1 in a pinch-hit appearance against Hanshin, but he had an RBI single as a starter in Seattle's contest with the Giants. He didn't play in the Mariners' first game against the A's, but an injury to left fielder Mike Carp forced Seattle manager Eric Wedge to juggle the lineup, allowing Seager to get the start at third base. He was 0 for 3 with a strikeout.

Seager at third base

The Oakland A's also have a Tar Heel on their roster, relief pitcher Andrew Carignan. Carignan, a teammate of both Ackley and Seager at Carolina, took the loss in game one after giving up the game-winning hit to Ackley.

Ackley has a pregame chat with teammates Chone Figgins and the iconic Ichiro

My Favorite Japanese Dog Has a Fancy New Store

Otosan, the ornery Akita Inu and patriarch of the White family, has taken over Ginza! The face of SoftBank's brilliant ad campaign, Otosan is featured prominently in one of Tokyo's glitziest shopping districts.

Otosan is big in Ginza

SoftBank, a major Japanese cell phone company, opened a new flagship store in early March.

Dog car :)

Here's SoftBank's commercial announcing the opening:

I've seen several SoftBank print ads during my current stay in Tokyo, and I noticed they've added a new character. It's model Reina Triendl, who joins the White family for a homestay.

It's confusing, but so much fun!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

MLB and NPB Meet in Tokyo - and JapanBall is There (or Here)

JapanBall organized a special spring tour as fourteen Americans converged on Tokyo for MLB's season opener in Japan. The official Opening Day for the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics begins on Wednesday, March 28, but before that the JapanBall crew will take in a few exhibition games between both the Mariners and A's against the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants.

The group - some familiar faces, some new - met baseball writer and broadcaster Wayne Graczyk and his wife, Yoshiko, and daughter, Gayle, at Roje Cafe Noodle, otherwise known as the JapanBall Hall of Fame. It was a time for dinner, drinks, camaraderie, and for familiarizing ourselves with the itinerary for the week. 

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I'm now an official member. My plaque has found its way to the wall.

Yes, I'm wearing koala ears

Cafe Roje Noodle proprietor, Jun (in white T-shirt), and Wayne Graczyk (red sweater) talk to the group in the narrow restaurant

Wayne gave us each a welcome packet containing our tickets for the games, a Suica card for subway and railway access, a map of Tokyo, The Japan Times 2012 Baseball Guide, and the Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide, which Wayne compiles each year. 

Welcome packet

Most of the group gathered in the lobby the next morning for an optional exhibition game between the Seibu Lions and the Yakult Swallows at Meiji Jingu Stadium. While waiting in the hotel lobby, we caught a glimpse of a wedding ceremony.

Hotel wedding

Our JapanBall tour was off to a rainy start, but we braved the sprinkles on our way to the stadium.

Starting lineup

Swallows mascot, Tsubakuro

Players take the field

The first three innings were slow, but the food was good.


I had curry rice, which was perfect for the chilly weather.

Todd from Seattle enjoyed udon, a thick noodle soup . . . 

. . . and yakisoba, grilled buckwheat noodles.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Japanese baseball game without a beer girl.


The sun finally decided to join us near the end of the game.

The game featured line drives, but no power hitting. In the end, the Swallows held off a Lions rally to win the game 5-4.

Final score

Among the ads that ring Meiji Jingu Stadium, I found a reminder of the devastating earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that struck Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

Ganbarou, Nihon! Don't give up, Japan!

The tour continues today with a day/night doubleheader at Tokyo Dome: The Seattle Mariners vs the Hanshin Tigers at noon, and the Yomiuri Giants vs the Oakland Athletics at 7:00 p.m.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ready for Some Baseball

Maps, tissues, and luggage tags

MLB's season opens in Tokyo with the Mariners taking on the Athletics, and I'll be there with a JapanBall tour group. With the exception of an exhibition game between the Seibu Lions and the Yakult Swallows at Meiji Jingu Stadium, the tour will hang out in Tokyo Dome.

Pictures and stories to follow!