03/26/2004 1:36 PM ET
Yankees excited despite travel
Players looking to enjoy Japan experience
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
|Jason Giambi (left) and Bernie Williams during MLB's visit to Japan in 2002. (David Guttenfelder/AP)
TAMPA -- If it weren't for the 18-hour trip, the Yankees would see no downside regarding their trip to Japan. Almost every player was looking forward to the season-opening journey to Tokyo, but just as they spoke of the thrill of experiencing another culture, the same topic always seemed to arise: the 18-hour trip.
The team faced adjustment to a 14-hour time change before starting its schedule in Tokyo, beginning with a workout at the Tokyo Dome on Saturday, followed by exhibition games on Sunday and Monday and then the start of the 2004 campaign with games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As crazy as life is sometimes for baseball's most high-profile club, this is extreme to say the least.
"I think we'd all enjoy doing that if we had ample opportunity to do it," said Mike Mussina, scheduled to start the season opener against Tampa Bay, to be played at 7 p.m. Tokyo time -- 5 a.m. ET. "It's going to be tough for us to do much more than what we're already scheduled to do. Plus, we're going to be dragging from traveling. It's going to be hard to enjoy ourselves when we're so beat for more than half the time we're there."
The Yankees left Tampa after an exhibition game against Philadelphia on Thursday and arrived in Tokyo about 1 a.m. Saturday local time.
Several Yankees had previously been to Japan during their careers, participating in international competitions or Major League Baseball's All-Star Series. Jason Giambi, who had been to Japan four times, was looking forward to visit No. 5.
"It's a great culture," Giambi said. "I love just hitting the streets and enjoying the people. They love baseball, they love the big leagues, and it's great to experience that kind of excitement."
"Going over there, where you know how sacred baseball is," said manager Joe Torre, whose only trip to Tokyo was 30 years ago. "You see how the fans enjoy it and how passionate they are about it, and the players really feed off of that."
Jose Contreras said he had been to Japan roughly eight times with the Cuban national team, including a one-month training camp. Contreras has fond memories of his time in Japan, and was looking forward to experiencing the culture in Tokyo once again.
"It's a great city, very well-developed," Contreras said through an interpreter. "The Japanese have a beautiful culture. I really enjoyed my time there. They really love baseball."
Alex Rodriguez's only trip to Tokyo came in 1996, when he took part in the All-Star Series after his first full season in the Majors.
"It was a great experience," A-Rod said. "I was only 20 years old, and it was quite a thrill to be on that team. It's a long trip, but it should be a lot of fun."
Gary Sheffield had made the trip twice, playing in the All-Star Series in both 1996 and 2000. He remembered the passion of the fans during the games, as well as his first encounter with teammate Hideki Matsui, as the two players exchanged autographed jerseys and jackets. But what Sheffield remembered most was the electronics stores.
"I loved going into the stores," Sheffield said. "I got a little video camera that fit in the palm of my hand. At the time, most of the cameras over here were pretty big, so it was cool. I'm sure there will be some new stuff there. I'll have to see what I like."
Paul Quantrill and Derek Jeter had never been to Japan. Quantrill had heard about the fanaticism of the fans, something he was looking forward to seeing firsthand.
"I'm looking forward to getting a little taste of their culture," Quantrill said. "From a baseball standpoint, it's good for the game. Though I'm not sure it's the best way for us to start a season. No one really wants to fly for umpteen hours, but that's what we're doing. It will be a great experience for all of us."
"I just want to see the country. I've heard a lot, but I've never been over there," said Jeter. "I don't know what it's going to feel like, but I'm curious to find out. I think it's going to be fun, but I don't know what to expect."
The players who had played games in Japan knew that the atmosphere will be electric at the Tokyo Dome. Considering that Matsui will be playing in his native country for the first time since leaving for the Majors prior to last season, Giambi expects mayhem when the Yankees take the field.
"They love the Yankees. When Bernie [Williams] and I went there, it was the first time any Yankees had been over there in a long time, so they were going crazy," Giambi said. "Now, having Hideki on the team, they're going to be unbelievable. He's as big as Michael Jordan over there."
"Most of the games that are televised in Japan are Yankee games," Matsui said through an interpreter. "So I'm assuming there will mostly be Yankee fans there."
Giambi said that the All-Star Series was Japan's version of March Madness, so he expects this trip to be no different.
"I can't imagine them being any better," he said of the fans. "People were sleeping in front of the stadium trying to get tickets. It should be exciting."
"I love the fans over there," Sheffield said. "To see people who are that excited about baseball, about the players, it's great. It makes their day just to say hello to the players. To see people love baseball like that, it's exciting."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.