Japan trip one D-backs will never forget

Japan trip one D-backs will never forget

Japan trip one D-backs will never forget
TOKYO -- When a team of D-backs executives set out on a whirlwind weeklong tour of Japan just hours after the Trade Deadline, their ambitious agenda included more than 20 hours on a plane, hundreds of miles on bullet trains, countless trips on subways and taxis across town and plenty of old-fashioned travel by foot.

What they couldn't have imagined were the thousands of baseball fans they would encounter, dozens of new friends they would make and indelible memories they would create that will last a lifetime.

"I had a kid come up to me and tell me that he didn't have a team to root for, and now he's going to be a D-backs fan," said Luis Gonzalez during the team's stop at the MLB Café in Tokyo on Saturday. "That's what this trip was all about. We made a lot of new friends, and hopefully a lot more people will follow our team because we took the time to make a trip like this."

The rarity of such a goodwill trip either in-season or during the offseason was not lost on Major League Baseball, whose vice president of Asia, Jim Small, actually returned from meetings in the United States for one day just to spend time with team president Derrick Hall, general manager Kevin Towers, Gonzalez and director of Pacific Rim operations Mack Hayashi, among others.

"It's not very often that you get a team's president, general manager and greatest player in franchise history coming to Japan," said Small. "I figured I could make the effort."

The D-backs are hopeful that their extra efforts will pay dividends for years to come, both on and off the field. The club visited with four different teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball League -- the Hanshin Tigers, the Yokohama Bay Stars, the Yomiuri Giants and the Chiba Lotte Marines -- as well as NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato, exchanging ideas while taking in games at three different ballparks.

"It was pretty cool to meet my counterparts and see how they do their job," said Towers, who had not been to Japan in 17 years and was amazed by the cleanliness of each city and the manner in which nearly every task is undertaken with efficiency and respect.

In an effort to experience the culture to its fullest, D-backs executives did everything from visiting temples to singing karaoke to eating several traditional Japanese meals. One lunch took place at a geisha restaurant built in the 1800s in historic Kyoto, while the club's dinner meeting with the Yomiuri Giants took place sitting on the floor and featured eight courses ranging from barracuda, sea urchin, scallops, prawns and octopus.

At each ballpark, subtle differences could be seen from American baseball, including 90 minutes of batting practice each day, featuring two pitchers side by side throwing curveballs and sliders in addition to straight fastballs. Several former D-backs players -- Josh Whitesell, Carlos Rosa and Chris Carter to Minor Leaguer Randy Ruiz -- greeted Hall, Towers and Gonzalez on the field.

The group also had the honor of meeting Masaichi Kaneda, the winningest pitcher in Japanese history just a couple hours after visiting his plaque at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame outside the Tokyo Dome.

It was there that Gonzalez noted a long line of newspapers taped to the ground outside the ticket office, which were placed there the night before to hold a fan's spot. Getting tickets to a game can be difficult at times, but once inside, the cheering and the chanting can reach a level rarely seen in America.

"My takeaway is how passionate fans are for this game over here, which further validates that this is the greatest sport in the world," said Hall, who had previously visited Japan on two occasions. "We were welcome by everyone we encountered and were amazed by the number of D-backs fans who actually follow us on a daily basis."

Several fans took that concept to a new level, as there were times where they would snap a photo with Gonzalez, Hall or Towers, and then show up a few hours later at a new spot in town looking to have the printed portrait autographed.

Gonzalez, who played here during the 2000 MLB All-Star tour, found himself signing autographs upon arrival in Tokyo at 4:30 in the morning, upon returning to the hotel late at night and even upon the group's departure after midnight -- although one American fan recognized him and thought he was fellow World Series hero Craig Counsell.

Alongside those humorous moments, the most powerful ones of the trip came in Ishinomaki, the town that was devastated by last year's earthquake and tsunami. Just an hour from the hometown of D-backs pitcher Takashi Saito, it was there that the D-backs' contingent encountered thousands of people whose lives were changed forever on that day.

"To see that up close is what will stick out most for me on this trip," said Towers. "First, the devastation that they're still dealing with nearly a year and a half later, and then, to see the smiles on the kids' faces at the MLB Road Show later that day was truly amazing. It really makes you appreciate every day and appreciate the fact that we get to work in the great game of baseball."

Josh Rawitch is the senior vice president, communications for the Arizona Diamondbacks. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.