Century-old rivalry renewed in Japan

Century-old rivalry renewed in Japan

What a difference a century makes.

Almost 100 years ago, the Chicago Nine, as they were known in newspaper headlines, began a journey to Japan. A founding member of the Big Ten Conference, the University of Chicago baseball team was on a mission of cultural exchange with its partner in Tokyo, Waseda University.

Baseball was still a foundling sport in Japan in the early 1900s, and the powerhouse Maroons helped Waseda draw thousands of fans to their games. The schools played a total of 10 series, five in Japan and five in the United States, through 1936. The first series took place in 1910.

In 2008, the rivalry will be renewed. While the Red Sox and A's prepare to open the Major League season in Tokyo next week, the University of Chicago team will return to the Far East as well.

Waseda is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and the school invited the Maroons to play a three-game series. The Maroons will fly to Tokyo on Friday -- a significant improvement from the combination of train travel and passage on the steamer Kamakura Maru that the team used for transport in 1910 -- arrive on Saturday and leave that night for Hiroshima, where they will play their first game against Waseda.

Games 2 and 3 will come Monday at Kyocera Dome in Osaka and Tuesday at Invoice Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa, an outlying city in the greater Tokyo megalopolis.

"It's something," Maroons coach Brian Baldea said of the series. "It didn't appear we would be able to make the trip at first. It's kind of a harried schedule, but it's worth every bit of effort."

Baldea said that acknowledging the ties between the two baseball clubs is important. Historians credit the Chicago-Waseda matchups as highly influential.

"Chicago was about as big as it got in terms of athletics," said Baldea, also the assistant athletic director. "Chicago was instrumental in helping Waseda and teaching them.

"Waseda adopted Chicago's colors and their style of uniforms. They kind of copied Chicago in every way. They drew 20,000 to 30,000 people, who were curious to see American baseball, and according to their people, it had a lot to do with their coming on."

And come on Waseda has.

Since joining the Tokyo Big 6 in 1925, Waseda has developed into a monster of a program -- one of Japan's best, it has 39 Big 6 Championships and some 1,100 victories in the Tokyo tieups.

A lot has changed on the other side of the Pacific. Chicago, which left the Big Ten in 1946, is now an NCAA Division III program. The Maroons won five Big Ten championships in baseball between 1896 and 1913.

Under Baldea, the winningest coach in Chicago's history, the Maroons have been a solid D-III program, posting winning seasons in 12 of the last 13 seasons.

The trip is being sandwiched in between finals week at Chicago and its season-opener against Oberlin College, which will take place in Phoenix, Ariz., the night the Maroons get back from Japan.

Harried indeed -- from Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Japan to Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Phoenix, Chicago will have gone from playing one game to flying internationally to flying domestically to finding its way to a baseball diamond with enough left in the tank for Opening Day.

"It's not the most advantageous situation in terms of competing right off the plane in Phoenix," Baldea said. "But it's something the guys will never forget.

"I was in Osaka once 15 years ago, but I don't have anyone on my team who has been to Japan. We're all looking forward to it. It's an honor, and it's going to be a great baseball experience."

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