Japanese baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki had four hits and drove in a run, leading the Seattle Mariners to a 3-1 win over the Oakland Athletics in the opener of U.S. Major League Baseball’s 2012 season in Tokyo Wednesday.
Suzuki finished 4 for 5 batting third for the first time after playing lead-off nearly all his career. Infielder Dustin Ackley fired the game-winning hit in the top of the 11th inning for Seattle, who had the worst offensive record in the majors last season.
The game is the fourth time MLB has opened its season in Japan. But it is the first time Ichiro returned with the Mariners to play in his home country since the superstar left Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league in 2001.
The season opener and a second game Thursday at the Tokyo Dome are sold out, with tickets going for as much as $250 per seat.
The two U.S. teams will spend a total of a week in Japan. They have already played several exhibition games in front of sell-out crowds against professional Japanese teams. They also held a baseball clinic earlier in the week in a tsunami-battered district in northern Japan.
Seattle Mariners President Howard Lincoln says he hopes the game will encourage victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan one year ago.
“One of the things I hope this opening series will bring is small measure of help to all the victims of the great earthquake and tsunami of last year. Let’s hope that all of the people that are still suffering get some small measure of joy from these games.”
Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who played last year for a Japanese team in the tsunami-struck region, says he wants his performance to inspire those in the region who are still struggling to recover.
“Because I played last year for the team that was based in the disaster area, I really wanted to give something back to the local community there. I thought one way to achieve that goal was to play for a major league team. I hope what I have done will inspire people in the disaster area and encourage them.”
But the main draw for Japanese fans is Ichiro, who is by far the most successful Japan-born player to make the transition to the U.S. league. In 11 years, he has won a Most Valuable Player award, two batting titles, 10 Gold Glove awards, and appeared in 10 All-Star games. But the 38-year-old outfielder is coming off his worst season so far, and the only one in which he has failed to reach 200 base hits.
Even so, Japanese baseball fans still have another reason to keep a close eye on the MLB this year. Another one of their baseball stars – Yu Darvish – signed a record-breaking $60-million contract with the Texas Rangers in January. The son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, the right-handed pitcher was the most highly sought-after international player in several years.
Through last season, 38 Japan-born players have appeared in the major leagues.