Sayonara: MLB stars head home after memorable trip
Big leaguers enjoy once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience despite series loss
NAHA, Japan -- Eight thousand or so miles later, on a trip that wound 29 players through five cities, five stadiums and a stew of varied cultures and early wakeup calls, Major League Baseball's All-Stars in Japan are going home. Their 6-4 loss to Samurai Japan in Thursday's Okinawa exhibition gave them four defeats in seven total games, including their official 3-2 loss in the five-game series.
"My countrymen actually showed Japanese baseball's resiliency," said Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, one of two native players on MLB's roster. "It was good to experience that."
Well beyond this country's black-dirt outdoor stadiums and vast domed ones, MLB's All-Stars made the types of memories they'd hoped for upon boarding their trans-Pacific flight 12 days ago. They visited ancient temples, ate fresh sushi and ordered plenty of foods they couldn't pronounce or identify. (Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins was the alleged ringleader of a group of players who were daring each other to eat the strangest things possible.)
They took selfies. (Oh, did they take selfies.) They bonded with fathers, wives and children. They took more selfies. At one point, Pirates closer Mark Melancon serenaded a Japanese woman in a hotel lobby. Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie filmed a Backstreet Boys parody video. They took more selfies (and more selfies). And so on and so forth, from the northern reaches of Sapporo, Japan to the southern island outpost of Okinawa.
"Everybody here has been so welcoming and so gracious to have us," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "That has made the experience for us so positive. We're disappointed that we lost the series, but we definitely learned a lot by playing that team -- the Japanese national team -- and how talented the players are over here. We look forward to seeing those guys succeed in playing at the Major League level."
The trip began with an exhibition in Nishinomiya, at a 90-year-old stadium known for its black volcanic dirt. It wound through Osaka and Tokyo from there, drawing crowds by the tens of thousands. A quartet of geishas entertained the All-Stars one afternoon in Kyoto. A quartet of pitchers no-hit them one night at the Tokyo Dome.
Things continued to Sapporo and Okinawa this week, with autograph seekers clamoring outside hotels at each turn. The trip finally ended in Naha, where 28 exhausted big leaguers -- the crew lost one player, Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, to injury earlier in the trip -- boarded a jumbo jet bound for Los Angeles.
"I think the thing I'll remember is just the experience -- the cultural experience and the baseball cultural experience, too," Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "It's just a really special thing that you're probably never going to get to do again. Being that they love baseball so much in this country, to get to experience that from their side of the world is really special."
On the field, MLB's All-Star team began to understand the true might of modern-day Japanese baseball. From Kenta Maeda, who could come to MLB as soon as this winter, to 20-year-old sensation Shohei Ohtani -- the Nippon-Ham Fighters' Yu Darvish clone -- Japan's starting rotation wowed hitters on a daily basis. The All-Stars fought back behind Longoria, Justin Morneau, Matt Shoemaker and others, though by trip's end, the conversation had shifted to what some see as a closing gap between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball.
"I picked the top-ranked players available," Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said. "These guys conditioned themselves just like the regular season. That's why we were able to win the series, I believe."
Samurai Japan saw the series as an opportunity to develop young players in anticipation for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which is held in high regard here. The MLB All-Stars looked to the future, too, but also to a once-in-a-lifetime cultural opportunity in the present.
"This has been a tremendous experience for us," MLB manager John Farrell said. "For many of us, it's the first time that we've been to Japan. We've gotten the opportunity to see guys from Iwakuma to Darvish to [Masahiro] Tanaka to Koji Uehara to [Junichi] Tazawa -- guys who have been playing in the States. But then to see a team full of excellent players that are powerful, they're talented [with] extremely good pitching, this has been a very positive experience."
Now, it is over for a group of players feeling proud and tired, with enough selfies to last a lifetime.
"We've been to some great cities in the country here," Zobrist said. "Whether it's restaurants or sightseeing or any of the things we took a lot of pictures of … I don't think we'll soon forget the experiences we've had."