D-backs contingent takes in all Tokyo has to offer

Big Unit, Gonzalez, La Russa enjoy busy visit before wrapping up goodwill tour

D-backs contingent takes in all Tokyo has to offer

TOKYO -- More than a quarter-century ago, a 27-year-old Randy Johnson stood atop the mound at the nascent Tokyo Dome to finish off a combined no-hitter for a team of traveling MLB All-Stars. On Wednesday night, the recently inducted Hall of Famer climbed back up on that same mound to deliver a ceremonial first pitch to his catcher, Luis Gonzalez, capping a whirlwind week-long visit that saw the D-backs plant their flag on the other side of the world.

"This trip has been incredibly successful on a number of fronts," said D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall. "We made a promise on our first visit back in 2012 to continue to come back regularly and spend time in this country, and now that we have, we see that our friendships have grown stronger, as has our brand exposure."

The visit from Hall, Johnson, Gonzalez, chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and director of Pacific Rim operations Mack Hayashi included stops in Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sendai, Ishinomaki and Tokyo while the group took in five games at four ballparks. The games featured a strong seven-inning outing by right-hander Kenta Maeda, who is rumored to be ready to make the jump to the Major Leagues next season, and a complete-game four-hit shutout by 21-year-old Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani. The hard-throwing ace struck out 12 batters and improved his record to 11-3 while lowering his ERA to 2.26 in 16 starts.

During the goodwill trip, the D-backs' contingent met with executives from the Yomiuri Giants, Hiroshima Carp, SoftBank Hawks, Chiba Lotte Marines, Nippon Ham Fighters, and they also met with Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki.

"We want to continue to have strong relationships with the front offices of the teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, and that's why it's important for us to continue to come down here," said Gonzalez, who also took part in the D-backs' 2012 trip, and who first came to Japan with Johnson in 2000. "Every team in Major League Baseball is always looking for an impact-type player, and there have been several to make the jump the last few years. We want to continue to try and find those guys."

But the nearly 12,000-mile round trip from Phoenix was about more than just baseball on the field, as the schedule included a packed-house stop at the MLB Café in Tokyo, a tour of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and an appearance at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, where ambassador Caroline Kennedy's staff rolled out the red carpet for the high-profile guests.

The group also took part in a news conference with MLB Japan to announce the creation of the MLB Cup, a youth tournament that will begin in 2016. Throughout the tour, throngs of media were on hand to cover the D-backs' every step.

"My impressions of Japan are overwhelming, because I had high expectations and had wanted to make this trip for as long as I can remember," said La Russa, who departed two days before the rest of the group in order to meet up with the big league club in Pittsburgh, where it completed a three-game series on Wednesday. "From the culture to the beauty of the country and the excitement of the fans, everything I had expected was exceeded."

The trip also included visits to historic Miyajima Island, as well as the city of Ishinomaki, which was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The group also visited the A-Bomb Dome, the lone building that still stands in Hiroshima 70 years after the end of World War II -- an anniversary which took place halfway through the trip.

Johnson compared seeing those places to when he, Gonzalez and his teammates visited Ground Zero during the 2001 World Series, just a month after the September 11 attacks. Seeing tragedy firsthand provided a new perspective for the left-hander and he took the time to let it soak in. Of course, at every stop throughout the trip, the avid photographer had his camera out to capture images of the people, places and events he was witnessing.

"I'm always trying to find one picture that will encapsulate the whole trip that I've been on," said Johnson. "Going through the bullet train stations, there were some great opportunities with little kids where we were on the train and they're outside [on the platform] giving me the peace sign."

Johnson has made the trip to Japan nearly 10 times in his career, as a player and now as an executive, and each time he is treated like a rock star. Crowds follow him looking for autographs, photos or just to try to shake hands with the legendary left-hander.

"Baseball is huge in this culture here, and from the moment I stepped foot on this soil for the first time in 1990 to today, when I've been retired for six years, it's still a warm welcome when I come over here and I definitely don't go unnoticed."

The D-backs are hopeful the same goes for their team and their brand among Japanese baseball fans for years to come.

Josh Rawitch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.