TOKYO — So this is major league baseball! A crowd of 55,000 turned out on a rainy Tuesday night to watch the Tampa Bay Devil Rays upset the New York Yankees, 8-3, in the opening game of the season at the Tokyo Dome, and they liked what they saw.
"You could really feel the power of the players and the wonder of American baseball," said Kazunori Mukoyama, a 20-year-old Yankee fan from near Tokyo. "I was disappointed at the result; I never imagined the Yankees would lose. But it was a great game anyway."
If Sunday's exhibition between the Yankees and Yomiuri Giants was the main event for many Japanese fans, Tuesday's major league opener was for connoisseurs of the American game and those desperate to see teams from baseball's homeland face off.
Like a growing number of young Japanese, Mukoyama prefers the major leagues to Japanese baseball. He was first captivated by the Yankees three years ago when he saw them play against Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners on Japanese television.
For other fans, it was Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui who brought them to the Yankees last season and to the Tokyo Dome for the game.
"I couldn't concentrate at work this week knowing that I would soon be seeing Matsui and the Yankees," said Satoko Ohara, a female fan in a No. 55 Yankee shirt. "I was a Yomiuri Giants fan when Matsui was here, but when he left my interest waned and I am drawn more to the Yankees now. It was so sad when they lost the World Series. This time, I really want them to win."
Some in Japan fear that a wave of talented players heading to the U.S. may hurt the popularity of the home game. But many Japanese accept that their best players will want to test their skills in the major leagues, which many see as the true home of baseball.
"In Japan, baseball is called yakyuu. I think it's a different game, not just a different name. Major league is real, real baseball," said Terumasu Iga, a 22-year-old from Tokyo. "MLB has such a rich history and the mood among the fans is more intense. In Japan, the fans form cheering squads and play trumpets and drums. I hate that, I just want to focus on the game."
Indeed, the atmosphere inside the Tokyo Dome was more like that of an American game than a Japanese game: Lively when the play was lively, but with moments of quiet anticipation.
"It was amazing to see that the game could be so atmospheric without all that organized cheering," Mukoyama said.
Not that an American could mistake the Dome for home. Hundreds of young women in fluorescent uniforms combed the stands, dispensing beer from barrels carried in rucksacks on their backs: a bargain at $8 for a paper cup of Kirin. Popcorn was sold alongside the local delicacy of chewy squid. Visiting New Yorkers were shocked at the dense fog in the stadium corridors, where Japanese smokers watch much of the game on television screens.
In a spirit of international friendship, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani stood side by side to throw the ceremonial first pitches.
Many Japanese had been looking forward to a powerhouse performance by the Yankees.
"I predict it will be 10-0 to the Yankees," said 35-year-old local Hajime Hongo before Tuesday's game. "I expect to see Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter hit a couple of home runs each."
Instead, the Devil Rays had most of the big hits, including a homer by Jose Cruz Jr. that tied the score, 3-3, in the sixth, and a two-run homer by former Yankee Tino Martinez that broke open the game in the seventh. Atsushi Hosono, a 35-year-old from near Tokyo, struck a lonely figure sporting a Devil Ray headscarf amid numerous Yankee caps and shirts.
"Everyone else in the stadium was supporting the Yankees, so I felt a bit sorry for the Devil Rays," he said. "I know a bit about them and like them so I am happy they won. Aubrey Huff is a fine player and deserves to be better known."
Hosono attends Japanese baseball games only once or twice a year, but saw the New York Mets play the Chicago Cubs in Tokyo four years ago and this time around paid $190 for a ticket to each of the Yankee-Devil Ray games.
"It's a bit pricey but I just had to come," he said. "The size, power and speed of American players is totally different, though Japanese players may be more skillful."
Both games in the series were sellouts despite prices around double the cost of normal domestic games. On Internet auction sites, tickets were on sale for close to $500 a pair. But tight security around the Dome put a stop to the usually frenetic black market for tickets in the hours before the game.
However sought-after the tickets had been, thousands of fans leaked away during the eighth inning as it became apparent that the Yankees couldn't turn the game around. Even the magic of the major leagues, it seems, can't convince some Japanese to stay out late on a weeknight.