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MLB is no stranger to Japan

MLB is no stranger to Japan

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What do Torii Hunter, Steve Finley and Mark Grace have in common? Many things probably, but what link do they also share with Barry Bonds, Tony Pena and Barry Larkin?

The answer is this: All of the above were big in Japan. In this case, all six have been MVPs in previous MLB Japan All-Star Series, dating back to the debut of the event's current format in 1986.

American teams have been visiting Japan since 1908, when the Reach All-America Team went 17-0 in a tour of the island nation. To start off the 2008 season, the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox will travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The teams will have day-night doubleheaders against Nippon Professional Baseball's Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants before playing a pair of games on March 25-26, including MLB's earliest Opening Day.

Recent baseball history between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball has been all about the All-Star tours, but the season openers are starting to develop a legend of their own as well. This year marks the fifth time in the last 10 years that a Major League season has opened outside the United States. The upcoming Red Sox-Athletics game will be the third such opener that Japan has hosted.

With Daisuke Matsuzaka taking the mound as Boston's Opening Day starter, 2008 promises to build on MLB's foundation in Japan. But first, let's take a look back at the results of the 10 All-Star Series and two season-opening series:

2006 All-Star Series
Many factors were at play in 2006 on both sides of the matchup, and the end result was MLB sweeping NPB, 5-0. It was the first series to end in a sweep, harkening back to earlier days when American squads would leave Japan unscathed (although this time, the games were much, much closer). The last team to go unbeaten in Japan was the 1955 New York Yankees, who went 15-0-1.

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who hit 58 home runs that season on the way to winning the National League MVP award, hit .558 in the series with four home runs to become series MVP. Howard's ability to hit the long ball was one of the big stories heading into the series, and delighted Japanese fans and enamored media ate up everything Howard gave them.

With all of Howard's power, however, it was a Jose Reyes home run in the 10th inning of Game 5 that preserved the series sweep. Howard and Reyes bolstered an MLB roster that included Bronson Arroyo, Chase Utley, Joe Nathan and Jermaine Dye.

2004 All-Star Series
The 2004 series opened with the Major Leaguers unable to do any wrong. Four games in, MLB had guaranteed itself at least a draw in the eight-game series, but after an NPB surge, MLB needed a victory in the final game to preserve a series victory and keep from squandering the four-game advantage.

Kaz Ishii, Roger Clemens and Jake Peavy all were winning pitchers in 2004, but Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells walked away with MVP honors. Wells drove in the game-winning runs in Games 1 and 3, batting .411 during the stretch and winning a new Acura as his prize.

Manny Ramirez and Dontrelle Willis played in 2004, as did Brad Wilkerson, who became the final player to appear in a Montreal Expos uniform during the series.

Opening Series 2004
Opening Series 2004, between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil was played before sellout crowds of 55,000 at the Tokyo Dome on March 30 and 31. Both teams tested their mettle against the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball with back-to-back games preceding the season-opening contest. Total attendance for the six games was 309,000, up 23% from the 2000 Opening Series.
Game
Result
Attendance
March 27Tampa Bay Devil Rays vs. Hanshin Tigers Rays 7, Tigers 745,000
March 28New York Yankees vs. Hanshin TigersTigers 11, Yankees 752,000
 New York Yankees vs. Yomuiri GiantsYankees 6, Giants 255,000
March 29Tampa Bay Devil Rays vs. Yomuiri GiantsRays 7, Giants 147,000
March 30Tampa Bay Devil Rays vs. New York YankeesRays 8, Yankees 355,000
March 31Tampa Bay Devil Rays vs. New York YankeesYankees 12, Rays 155,000
2004 opener: Yankees vs. Rays
Yomiuri and Hanshin were involved in the exhibition games this time, as the Rays and the Yankees both beat Yomiuri, while Hanshin tied Tampa Bay and beat the Bronx Bombers.

The Rays pulled off an Opening Day stunner with an 8-3 win over New York, but the Yankees bounced back with a 12-1 rout in the second game between the two teams at Tokyo Dome.

Hideki Matsui, returning to his native country and playing in the facility he called home when he played for Yomiuri, was series MVP, going 3-for-9 against the Rays with a double, home run and three RBIs.

Kevin Brown was the winning pitcher for the Yankees, while it was Victor Zambrano who got the win for Tampa Bay as it won its fifth straight Opening Day contest.

2003: A Case of Bad Timing
The 2003 season was set to open in Japan as well, with the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics set to play each other as well as the Giants and Fukuoka Daiei (now SoftBank) Hawks, but the event was canceled because of the War in Iraq.

2002 All-Star Series
Five games in, the MLB All-Stars were in a tight spot. Down, 3-2, in the series and heading back to Tokyo for three more, the visitors needed a sweep at the Big Egg to win the eight-game slate.

Then with the Minnesota Twins, center fielder Hunter saved a 4-2 victory for MLB with a one-handed catch that robbed NPB's Norihiro Nakamura of an RBI and then some. His shot would have scored the runner at second and left Nakamura -- who represented the tying run -- in scoring position with one out.

Hunter had entered the game as a defensive sub for Bernie Williams in the seventh inning, and by the time the night was over, he had some MVP hardware to take home.

Bartolo Colon, Ichiro Suzuki and Roberto Alomar were among the Major Leaguers who participated in the 2002 series.

2000 All-Star Series
Giants slugger Bonds hit four home runs in the series, a 5-2-1 MLB triumph, to lock up the MVP award. Bonds hit .321 and drove in nine runs during the series.

In the season before he set the single-season home run record of 73, Bonds showed flashes of a sense of humor with reporters, crediting "batting tips" he received from fellow NL West competitor and then-Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson for his success in the series.

Kazuhiro Sasaki, fresh off his Rookie of the Year campaign with the Seattle Mariners, earned two saves. Jose Vidro, Jeff Kent and Danny Graves also represented MLB.

Opening Series 2000
Opening Series 2000, between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets, marked the first season opener in Japan in MLB history. Tickets for the in-season games sold out in less than five hours when they went on sale in January 2000. A total of 244,000 fans attended the six games played as part of the event.

More than 125 journalists representing 51 international news organizations attended the games and were joined by an additional 250 Japanese media representatives. As one of the most important international baseball events ever staged, it was highly successful and marked the way for future Opening Series.

Date
Game
Result
Attendance
March 27Seibu Lions vs. New York Mets Mets 8, Lions 145,000
 Yomiuri Giants vs. Chicago Cubs Giants 6, Cubs 045,000
March 28Yomiuri Giants vs. New York Mets Giants 9, Mets 5 45,000
 Seibu Lions vs. Chicago Cubs Cubs 6, Lions 5 45,000
March 29New York Mets vs. Chicago CubsCubs 5, Mets 3 55,000
March 30New York Mets vs. Chicago Cubs Mets 5, Cubs 1 55,000

2000 opener: Mets vs. Cubs The Cubs and Mets split their exhibition games, falling to Yomiuri and beating the Seibu Lions. On the first Opening Day to be held outside of North America, the Cubs pulled out a 5-3 victory. The next day, Bobby Valentine's Mets club won, 5-1.

Valentine, who had managed Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines in 1994, saw his reverse-homecoming in this series become foreshadowing. Valentine would return to the Marines in 2004, and he led Lotte to a Japan Series championship in 2005, becoming the first foreign-born manager to win a Japan Series title.

Shane Andrews' two-run home run was the difference on Opening Day, while Benny Agbayani -- who would return to Japan with Valentine and earn a Japan Series title as well -- hit a grand slam in the 11th inning to keep the Mets from going home winless in Game 2.

1998 All-Star Series
Cubs slugger Sosa lost the home run race to Mark McGwire in 1998, but the Dominican made a big impression in Japan that offseason, hitting three home runs and making arrangements for aid donations for survivors of Hurricane Mitch in his native country.

Sosa drove in a run on his 30th birthday, an occasion marked with a 2-0 victory over the Japanese in Osaka. The victory started a three-game winning streak to wrap up the series as MLB finished with a final tally of 6-2 against NPB players.

Fernando Vina, Garret Anderson and Curt Schilling joined Sosa and the victors.

1996 All-Star Series
Team NPB ended the series on an upswing, winning Game 7 and coming back from three runs down to force a tie in Game 8, but San Diego Padres outfielder Steve Finley, on the strength of a .400 batting average and nine RBIs in the series, was named MVP.

Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson and Mike Piazza played in 1996 as well. MLB won four out of five after losing Game 1, taking the series 4-2-2.

1992 All-Star Series
Hideo Nomo was still a Kintetsu Buffalo in 1992, when Mark Grace was the MVP of an MLB squad that went 6-1-1, a solid response to a rare series loss in 1990.

The Major Leaguers opened and closed the series with three-game winning streaks.

1990 All-Star Series
Ken Griffey Jr. was awarded the dubious honor of MVP in the only series the MLB All-Stars lost, a 3-4-1 shortcoming. The Japanese all but ensured a series victory after winning the first four games, including a pair of one-run victories.

Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, who had played the previous season with Japan's Hanshin Tigers, was on the losing side, as were Lenny Dykstra, Jesse Barfield and Kelly Gruber.

"They're outplaying us and outhitting us," said manager Don Zimmer after Game 4's loss. "They're playing better baseball."

1988 All-Star Series
A three-game winning streak sandwiched in the middle of the series was all that kept the Major Leaguers ahead of their Japanese counterparts.

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was MVP in a tight series which MLB won 3-2-2, including the only scoreless tie in series history in Game 7.

1986 All-Star Series
Were it not for the 6-4 win that NPB earned in Game 5, the seven-game series would have been an MLB sweep. Pirates catcher Tony Pena, who would be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals the following April, was the first series MVP.

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

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }
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