Originally created 03/31/04

Baseball opens its season on the other side of the world



TOKYO -- Japanese fans waited 49 years to see the New York Yankees again. Judging by the turnout at Tokyo Dome, it was worth the wait.

New York lost 8-3 to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Tuesday's season opener - the first time the Yankees visited Japan since 1955 - but spirits were high among the capacity crowd of 55,000.

"This is the biggest thrill of my life," said Kenji Matsuoka, an office worker who paid $250 for his ticket. "To see the Yankees live is like a dream come true."

It was the second major league baseball opener in Japan. The New York Mets and Chicago Cubs opened the 2000 season in Tokyo.

From the opening pitch Tuesday, it clear which team the crowd was rooting for. While not as vocal as the bleacher creatures in the Bronx, Japan's polite fans were clearly pulling for the Yankees.

The crowd let out a collective moan when Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff drove in a run in the bottom of the seventh, giving the Devil Rays a 6-3 lead. But they applauded warmly when former Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez hit his 300th career homer.

Despite the lopsided score, there were few empty seats when Tampa Bay reliever Danys Baez recorded the final out.

Hideki Matsui was greeted at the plate with the biggest ovation and chants of "Home run, home run Matsui!" When he rattled a double off the wall in his first at-bat, the crowd roared.

The Yankees have always been popular in Japan, and the addition of Matsui has only added to their appeal.

Matsui played 10 seasons at Tokyo Dome for the Yomiuri Giants. His return has been front-page news in Japan.

"He looks great in a Yankee uniform," said student Keiko Utsugi. "I hope he can hit a few more homers this season."

While the Devil Rays are the home team for the two-game series, the Yankees got permission from baseball to wear pinstripes.

Alex Rodriguez's debut in pinstripes didn't help the Bombers. A-Rod, the American League's MVP last season and baseball's highest-paid player, took called third strikes his first two times up before doubling and popping out. But he did make three sparkling defensive plays at third base, the position he switched to from shortstop when the Texas Rangers traded him to New York lost month.

In the stands, Japanese fans wore Yankee T-shirts with Derek Jeter's, Rodriguez's and Matsui's the most popular. Some Japanese fans wore green Statue of Liberty headbands.

Back in New York, die-hard fans crowded into bars before dawn to watch. At Mickey Mantle's Sports Bar on Central Park South, about 100 patrons gathered around television screens. The mood was resolutely upbeat until Martinez hit his homer.

"Come on!" shouted Robert Koch, 33, amid a chorus of boos. "I was hoping they'd win this."

Still, he said, the morning's ordeal - beginning with the wail of his alarm clock at 3:30 a.m. - had been worthwhile. He drove an hour to the city from Katonah, in Westchester County.

"Any true Yankee fan wants to see them open up at Yankee Stadium," he conceded. "But to see the Yanks play in another country and have a party surrounding it, it's phenomenal."

Associated Press writer Justin Glanville contributed to this story from New York.