(All photos by Associated Press. In the top one, Ken Griffey Jr. offers instruction during a youth clinic in Kawasaki, outside Tokyo, and in the second one he responds to a question during a Q&A).
I talked today to Mariners senior director of baseball information Tim Hevly, who accompanied Eric Wedge and Ken Griffey Jr. to Japan on what he called “a little weekend jaunt.”
The trio went on a whirlwind three-day (more or less) trip to Tokyo, leaving from Seattle last Friday afternoon and arriving in Tokyo on Saturday night. They left for home on Monday evening around 6 p.m. Tokyo time — and because of the vagaries of Asia to North America travel, arrived back in Seattle at 9:30 Monday morning.
The purpose of the trip was to promote the season-opening games in Japan between the Mariners and Oakland A’s, to take place March 28 and 29 at the Tokyo Dome. A’s manager Bob Melvin solely represented Oakland, while Yomiuri — which both owns the Giants and is helping present the games in Japan — requested that the M’s bring an additional person because this was their first time playing in the country. (You might recall that in 2003 — when Melvin was managing in Seattle — the Mariners had been scheduled to open in Japan, but the trip was canceled because of the Iraq war).
(Wedge, Griffey and Bob Melvin during a press conference to promote the Seattle-Oakland games in Japan on March 28-29).
Hevly said Griffey, now a Mariners consultant and still a big name in Japan, volunteered for the task. I asked him if there was any consideration given to having Ichiro involved in the promotion, for obvious reasons.
“Ichiro is in Japan right now, and it wouldn’t have been a big deal to have him come, but that’s not what this event was set up to be,” he said. “The point was to have someone from our organization there to join with the managers to talk about the games. Ichiro is very focused on getting ready for the season, and it was nice not to disrupt his routine.”
One of the highlights of the trip for the Mariners contingent was a clinic they attended on Sunday at the Yomiuri training site, about an hour outside Tokyo, for about 110 kids from around Japan.
“That was terrific,” Hevly said. “The passion those kids have for baseball was really evident. The amount of energy from kids between 8 and 12 years old was amazing. They were very attentive. They want to be better.”
Wedge and Griffey both offered tips on various aspects of baseball. Among the attendees were a group of 36 kids from Fukushima, which had been devastated by last spring’s earthquake and tsunami. They road a bus four hours to attend, and got a special “meet and greet” with Griffey and Wedge afterward, in which they received some Mariner gear the team had sent with the group. The other kids received memorabilia as well, and the Mariners posed for pictures with all the participants.
“It was fun to see how excited they were,” Hevly said. “It’s a reminder how resilient kids are.”
Griffey, who made several tours of Japan as a player, is still recognized wherever he goes. When the group went to see a sumo tournament, one glance into the car from the security detail got them waved in. And on the last day of their stay, when Griffey headed out of the hotel, there was a “mini-riot,” in Hevly’s words, as fans surged toward his car for one last crack at an autograph.
“He’s definitely a big deal,” Hevly said.
As for the main event, the press conference, Hevly estimated that there were “easily 200 people there. The hotel ballroom was packed. There were 12 or 13 TV cameras in back, 100 to 150 print reporters, and about 50 photographers. It was a big deal.”
There’s not much English coverage I could find of the press conference other than this Associated Press story, which features a Griffey quote when asked about Ichiro (I have a feeling a lot of the questions were about Ichiro — at least the ones not about Hideki Matsui):
“Ichiro is going to be fine, you can ask these two guys (Melvin, Wedge) if a guy had 184 hits they wouldn’t be complaining,” Griffey said. “But you are looking at a guy who is a special athlete. He had one hiccup in his career and come this time next year we won’t even be talking about this. He is going to come into this season determined and with a little fire.”
Afterwards, they flew back — Griffey to his home in Florida, Hevly and Wedge to Seattle. And there was no rest for the weary — after heading back in time from P.M. to A.M., Wedge met with Jack Zduriencik at Safeco Field on Monday morning.