Goodwill tour off to moving start for D-backs
La Russa, Big Unit, Gonzalez get warm welcome, take in history of Hiroshima
HIROSHIMA, Japan -- It has been almost half a century since the Beatles made their lone tour to Japan, but as D-backs chief baseball officer Tony La Russa, recent Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson and franchise legend Luis Gonzalez touched down less than 48 hours ago, the trio learned what it must have been like to have their every step followed by legions of adoring fans.
The first indication that their goodwill trip would draw attention came the moment they emerged from customs at Tokyo's Haneda airport at 5 a.m. local time Friday. Fans were already on site seeking autographs and photos from three of the biggest names in D-backs franchise history. Shortly thereafter, the group caught a connecting flight to Hiroshima.
"We're hoping to accomplish a lot of things," said La Russa, who was making his first trip to the country after 54 years in professional baseball. "We're here to watch baseball, for sure. But we also want to observe the culture, because I've heard and read so much about it -- the courteousness of the people, the cleanliness of the country and the way stuff operates so efficiently. They have great history that we want to learn about, and obviously we want the people of this country to know that Diamondbacks baseball is something they want to pay attention to."
The history in Japan's second-largest city is well documented, as 10 days prior to the D-backs' arrival, ceremonies marked the 70th anniversary of the atom bomb that altered life in Hiroshima. No visit would be complete without a stop at the Peace Museum and A-Bomb Dome, where the D-backs' executives saw first hand the horrors of World War II.
"Despite the fact that I had not been born for another 20 years and it being 70 years ago, this is probably the most historical thing that I've seen in my lifetime," said Johnson, who has traveled the world with the USO since his retirement. "I've never been to any of the concentration camps, but to witness this, I feel very fortunate to have gotten over here to Hiroshima to see a lot of baseball and a lot of history as well."
On its first night in Japan, the group met with ownership and senior executives of the Hiroshima Carp and then took in a game against the Yokohama Bay Stars. It was the first of three games the contingent would attend in the first 36 hours on the ground, including Saturday night's start from heralded right-handed pitcher Kenta Maeda, who is rumored to be looking to make the jump to the Major Leagues in 2016.
The 27-year-old did not disappoint, throwing seven innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 loss.
"It's been great," said Gonzalez, who took part in a similar goodwill trip in 2012. "We're going to get to see a lot of baseball and the hospitality, and the people here have been incredible. The fans have been overwhelmingly great when they see us walking around. They're very familiar with names and faces of baseball players in the United States, and that's been impressive."
The energy of the crowds also left a lasting impression on La Russa.
"I had seen it on TV, but until you experience the fans first hand, that's the most surprising thing or the most impressive thing in a sense, because they are so enthusiastic when they come to the ballpark," he said. "They bring their family and their little kids. They are excited, and they make noise for each side for nine innings straight."
The highlight of the first two days came on Saturday morning, when the group took a day trip to meet with front-office members of the Softbank Hawks in nearby Fukuoka, including chairman of the board Sadaharu Oh, who just happens to be Japan's all-time home run king.
"I would say that at this point, in the days that follow to the end of the trip, it would be very difficult to top the session we just had with Mr. Oh," said La Russa. "I have met him a few times, and every time, he has this aura about him. First of all, just his credentials, but on top of that, he's a gentleman and reminds me people like Stan Musial or Sandy Koufax."
Gonzalez asked Oh about his two-strike approach at the plate and famously high leg lift, leading to a 20-minute discussion on the finer points of hitting that left the three big league legends nearly speechless.
"It was just a rare experience to get that much insight into what made him so great, and he does it with such charm," said La Russa. "He's tied for first with the most impressive people I have ever met."