Boston's title defense begins in Far East

Boston's title defense begins in Far East

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When they take the field as defending World Series champions for the first time in 2008, the Red Sox will be continents away -- not to mention several thousand miles -- from Fenway Park.

It will just after 6 a.m. ET in Boston when either Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia steps into the batter's box at Tokyo Dome and takes the first official at-bat for the 2008 Sox.

A unique way to start a title defense, for sure, but one that the Sox are looking forward to.

Aside from Canada, the Red Sox have never opened a season in another country, as they will on March 25 against the Athletics in the homeland of Daisuke Matsuzaka (the Opening Day starter) and Hideki Okajima.

"It's going to be weird," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "To be honest, man, I'm excited to go. How many times am I going to Japan on my own? Probably none. This is an opportunity to go and see things that we normally may not see. I'm just going to roll with the punches and try to go have fun, and hopefully, they have some decent restaurants and stuff like that."

There will be some time to get acclimated. The Sox will arrive in Tokyo late on March 20, settle in for a day and play two exhibition games against Japanese teams before facing off against the A's for the two games that count in the standings.

"The appearances and things like that, that's secondary for what we're trying to do here," said manager Terry Francona. "We're trying to remind people of that. Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle -- that we need to try to go win a couple of games over there. Not necessarily the first two, but the last two."

Affable slugger David Ortiz has been to Tokyo before, as part of a traveling MLB All-Star team in 2004. He is eager for his return engagement.

"The people there are very respectful, very educated," said Ortiz. "And everything is clean. You can't even see a piece of paper [on the ground] out there."

And by the way, leave it to Big Papi to feast on Chinese food during his stay in Japan.

"I had a little bit of a hard time with the food, until I found a Chinese restaurant," he said. "I was there every day. Every day. I was killing it. At one point I showed up at the door, and the guy was like, 'Again? What's wrong with you?' "

This time around, Ortiz will have Matsuzaka, Okajima and their interpreters to guide him to the best eateries.

"After we found out about the Japan trip, a lot of my teammates came up to me and asked me to teach them more Japanese phrases, and they also had a lot of questions about Japanese food, so I can tell that everyone is looking forward to the trip," said Matsuzaka, who has been a star in Japan since he was 17.

But it isn't strictly a business trip for the Red Sox. Several players view it as an opportunity to have some quality family time. Reliever Manny Delcarmen, for instance, is taking his wife and 6-month-old son.

Veteran reliever Mike Timlin has visited a lot of places in his lengthy career, and now he'll be able to add Japan to the list.

"We're looking forward to going to Japan," Timlin said. "My kids are excited, my wife is excited, I'm excited. It's another country I haven't seen yet."

Left fielder Manny Ramirez has seen Japan a few times, most recently in 2004, when he accompanied Ortiz on the flight immediately after the team's World Series parade.

"I love it," Ramirez said. "I've been there, like, three times. I like everybody over there. We'll just go over and play the game."

Ramirez is even at peace with the fact that the flight will take more than half a day.

"I'm used to it. I go to Brazil every year," he said. "That's like 12 hours. I'm looking forward to it. I'll probably read some of my book."

In a sense, the Red Sox will be ambassadors for the game during their visit.

"I think everybody is looking forward to being in Japan and playing in Tokyo for the good of the game," said knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. "I don't think anybody is looking forward to the 18-hour flight over there, but I think once we get over there and represent baseball the right way ... I think everybody is excited to go over there and play two exhibition games and then two real games, and then come back to the West Coast and play those three and get the season started."

And in case you're wondering if Red Sox Nation stretches all the way to Japan, the A's -- who are listed as the home team -- have a pretty good inkling.

"The Red Sox will definitely have more fans than we do for those games," said Oakland right-hander Joe Blanton, who will oppose Matsuzaka in the opener. "It'll be pretty special for them to see Dice-K and Hideki Okajima. I'm sure they're big-time over there, and deservedly so. But that's all right. It's kind of cool going in there as the underdog."

Boston right fielder J.D. Drew was last in Tokyo in 1995, when his Florida State squad was picked to represent Team USA in a tournament.

"It's like New York City everywhere you go, people just packed on top of each other in a small area," said Drew. "You take the metro train wherever, and wherever you get off, it's the same-size city. That's what I remember, just the amount of people that were there in such a small area."

Tokyo is just one stop in a 18-day trip that will move on to Los Angeles, Oakland and Toronto in advance of the long-awaited Fenway Park opener on April 8.

"I think it's important to just focus on the winning," said general manager Theo Epstein. "Ultimately, we're going there to play two games that count and try to win them and come back. It's not going to sneak up on us. The team is pretty prepared for what we're going to face. I think we'll make the best of it and try to have fun, and try to win two games and come back and continue the season."

But long before that continuation starts, the Red Sox will be a well-traveled bunch.

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.