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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Athletics and Mariners to open major league season in Japan

Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki will play in front of countrymen when the clubs meet at the Tokyo Dome in a game that starts at 3 a.m. PDT on Wednesday.

March 27, 2012|By Mike Hiserman
  • Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki smiles during a team workout session at the Tokyo Dome on Tuesday. The Mariners will open the 2012 Major League Baseball season against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday.
Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki smiles during a team workout session… (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA )

The Oakland Athletics will be the home team, but the Seattle Mariners and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki will be the crowd favorites as Major League Baseball opens its 2012 season Wednesday with a game that starts at 3 a.m. PDT.

Seattle is the only MLB team with a Japanese owner, retired Nintendo Chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, who has had a majority stake in the Mariners since 1992 yet has never seen his team play in person — a streak that will be extended this week.

Even though the games against Oakland on Wednesday and Thursday will be played at the Tokyo Dome, about a two-hour drive from his home in Kyoto, Yamauchi, 84, will watch on television, the Mariners announced. No reason was given.

"He just indicated to me he's not going to be here," Mariners Chief Executive Howard Lincoln told reporters at a news conference when the team arrived last week. "Quite frankly, a man of his age and stature doesn't have to explain why he's not here."

The Mariners have one other Japanese player, infielder Munenori Kawasaki, on their 25-man roster. Another, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, was among the 30 they brought on a trip that also included two exhibition games against Japanese professional teams.

In all, the Mariners and the Athletics will spend about a week in Japan, which will play host to its fourth MLB opener, after the New York Mets versus Chicago Cubs in 2000, the New York Yankees versus Tampa Bay in 2004 and Boston versus Oakland in 2008.

The teams played before near-sellout crowds of more than 42,000 in each of their doubleheader exhibitions last weekend against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball's Central League.

The Mariners lost 5-1 to the Tigers on Saturday and 9-3 to the Giants on Sunday. The A's beat the Giants, 5-0, and lost to the Tigers, 12-6.

Suzuki, the main attraction for Japanese fans, was greeted by the twinkling of thousands of camera flashes as he approached the plate in each of his eight at-bats. Around town, he is omnipresent, his likeness all over the street on billboards and all over television on commercials.

Suzuki had one hit, a single in his first at-bat.

"It's a special event, it's important to us," he said after Game 1, referring to the Mariners playing in Japan for the first time. "This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for myself."

Oakland has its own Suzuki — Hawaii-born catcher Kurt, who starred for Cal State Fullerton in 2004 when the Titans won the College World Series.

Kurt Suzuki, the only A's player who was also with the team when it opened in Japan against the Red Sox in 2008, hit a home run in each of the exhibition games, a two-run blast against the Giants and a three-run shot against the Tigers.

The Athletics and Mariners also play in their mainland regular-season opener, April 6 at Oakland.

MLB is still referring to April 4 as opening day, when the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals play Miami in the Marlins' new ballpark. The Dodgers open April 5 at San Diego and the Angels on April 6 at home against Kansas City.

mike.hiserman@latimes.com

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