TOKYO -- Don Mattingly's admiration for Japanese baseball dates back to his days as a player -- first as a youngster playing instructional league ball in Bradenton, Fla., and then as a star player and one of the most recognized Yankees of his era.
Mattingly would closely watch the Japanese players he crossed paths with over the years, noticing their strict routines and work ethic. From there, he became a fan.
"I was that guy reading Sadaharu Oh books about balance, and things that he would do," Mattingly said, referring to Japan's all-time home run leader. "The culture and the love for baseball is something that was fun to watch. The work ethic of the Japanese players, their fundamentals, seem so solid."
For the next week, Mattingly will be managing the Major League team during the Japan All-Star Series, which will feature seven games in three cities: four in Tokyo, one in Hiroshima and two in Nagoya. The tournament begins Friday with the first of three games at the Tokyo Dome against Japan's All-Stars, but first, there will be an exhibition game with the Yomiuri Giants on Thursday, at the same venue.
Mattingly, who recently completed his third season as the Marlins' manager, expressed enthusiasm for the week ahead, emphasizing three themes: enjoy the experience, reach out to the fans, and play good baseball.
"For me, my message to players has been we want to have fun, we want to enjoy the fans and experience, but for 3 1/2 or four hours a night, we want to play great baseball," he said. "We want to see guys be tough outs and grind out at-bats. We have a great lineup. Passing the baton from one guy to the next, to try to make it hard, to make it tough on the pitcher. ... I'm hoping we show that we're here to play and compete."
The MLB roster features 29 players from 21 Major League clubs, including four who were All-Stars in 2018: Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger, Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Reds infielder Eugenio Suarez.
The roster also includes two National League Rookie of the Year Award finalists -- Nationals outfielder Juan Soto and Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. -- and three veterans who recently played for the NL champion Dodgers in the World Series: infielder/outfielder Enrique Hernandez, infielder Chris Taylor and pitcher Kenta Maeda, a former member of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.
The group gathered at the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday for a brief workout and a team photo, then met with the very large media contingent that closely follows baseball -- by far the country's most popular sport -- year-round.
During a packed news conference, former Japanese star Hideki Matsui, who is currently serving as first-base coach for the MLB team, expressed his appreciation to be back in Japan in this capacity, both as a former Yankees outfielder (2003-09) and star player for the Yomiuri Giants (1993-2002).
"This is going to be my first opportunity to see Japanese baseball in a long while," Matsui said. "I'm really looking forward to this opportunity. We'll show the best baseball possible to the great Japanese baseball fans. I'm looking forward to that."
Molina, who has had an up-close view of Japanese baseball as a participant for Team Puerto Rico in all four World Baseball Classics, dating back to 2006, expressed his past enjoyment playing against Japanese star players, and said he anticipates a competitive tournament this time, as well.
"I admire how they play, how they respect the game," he said. "I'm looking forward to playing against them."
For Haniger, this tournament provides a sneak peek of sorts, given that he'll be back next year when the Mariners and A's open the regular season with a two-game set at the Tokyo Dome in March.
Haniger said he's been hearing from baseball fans from Japan for the past couple of years, and he's happy to have this time to appreciate in person the passion Japanese fans have for the sport.
"In the United States, there's tons of great fans, and baseball's big there," he said. "But in Japan, compared to the United States, it's probably bigger here. It's their No. 1 sport. It's pretty cool. I've gotten fan mail, I've had people reach out on social media throughout the past couple years of my career from Japanese fans that I never knew I had. It's pretty cool to see that."
Japan All-Star Series schedule (watch games live on MLB Network)
• Thursday: 6 p.m. local/4 a.m. ET (exhibition vs. Yomiuri Giants)
• Friday: 6:05 p.m. local/4:05 a.m. ET
• Saturday: 6:30 p.m. local/4:30 a.m. ET
• Sunday: 7 p.m. local/ 5 a.m. ET
• Tuesday: 6:30 p.m. local/4:30 a.m. ET
• Nov. 14: 7 p.m. local/5 a.m. ET
• Nov. 15: 6 p.m. local/4 a.m. ET