20th anniversary of Cubs vs. Mets at Tokyo Dome
Twenty years ago Tuesday, the Chicago Cubs and a few of us media types gathered before daybreak at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., for a trip of a lifetime.
We were heading to Tokyo for the first regular-season baseball games to be played in Japan.
Some 18 months ahead of 9/11, our biggest concern wasn't security. Several years before the outbreak of SARS and two decades before COVID-19, the term "global pandemic" wasn't on anybody's minds.
No, our biggest worry was jet lag. It all seems quaint now.
We overcame the jet lag OK after a day of being so tired we could hardly see straight, and what followed was a trip that was memorable, eventful and successful, even for a Cubs team that would win only 65 games that season.
"I'm sort of honored that I was part of the first regular-season games there," said Jimmy Bank, the Cubs' traveling secretary at the time. Bank was in charge of all of the team's travel arrangements from start to finish. "It's pretty cool when you look back on it. It's not all that uncommon now."
There was one potentially sensitive personal matter for Bank to tie up: His father, Bert, was a POW under the Japanese for 33 months during World War II as part of the infamous Bataan Death March.
"I did ask my dad before the trip, well before the trip, 'Do you have any problem with me going?' " Bank recalled. "He started laughing. He said, '(Heck), no, I don't care. Go.' I said, 'OK, thanks.'"
The Sosa phenomenon
The main event of the trip was a two-game series between the Cubs and the New York Mets, with the Cubs winning the first game March 29 and the Mets winning the next night (or early morning back home in the Chicago area) at the Tokyo Dome.
The St. Louis Cardinals originally turned down a chance to go to Japan, so the Cubs went. That probably worked out best for all parties because the Cubs had Sammy Sosa and he may have been the most popular major leaguer in Japan at the time. He had traveled to Japan after his historic 1998 season, when he hit 66 home runs. During the series between the Cubs and Mets, Sosa and New York's Mike Piazza got the biggest cheers from the Japanese fans.
But the Japanese were ready well before the games started.
"When we arrived in Japan, I was the first one off the plane," Bank said. "I got off and there was a huge horde of media and fans right off the jet way. I walk a few steps and hear these screams behind me. I looked at them and said, 'Sosa just stepped off the plane.' It was obvious. The people went crazy. There must have been 25 if not more waiting for us in the concourse.
"This was before 9/11 of course. We go get our bags and we go out to the buses. They had sawhorses up holding the crowds back from the buses. We had heard going over there that Sammy was huge, the biggest name in baseball in Japan or one of the biggest. He starts signing autographs. Everybody's on the bus and ready to go, and he's signing autographs. I went up to him, and I would always call him '21.' I was like, 'Come on, let's go.' So Sammy finally stops and gets on the bus. He looks at me and says, 'It's good to be me.' I lost it. I was laughing so hard."
Crossing the international date line, the Cubs arrived in Tokyo Saturday afternoon, March 25, and boarded buses for a two-hour ride through traffic for a news conference at the New Otani Hotel.
Sharp-tongued Cubs bench coach Rene Lachemann had the best lines during the 36-mile ride from the airport.
"I've conquered the jet lag," he quipped. "The bus lag is killing me."
While on the bus, we also spotted a gasoline truck with a "Felix the Cat" logo on it. At the time, the Cubs had a combustible reliever named Felix Heredia.
"Oh look," Lachemann said. "A gasoline truck is greeting Felix."
Snafu, teapot tempests
Most participants viewed the trip as an unqualified success, but there was one snafu and a couple of tempests in the green-tea pot.
The snafu happened when first baseman-outfielder Julio Zuleta was sent back to Arizona from San Francisco after a passport-visa issue involving his home country of Panama.
"The snafu wasn't so much getting left behind," said Chuck Wasserstrom, the Cubs' media relations manager at the time. "It was him being allowed to get on the first plane. That was bad. While he didn't get there, he didn't wind up losing a chance of getting to the majors as a result. Those things do happen. Wrong place, wrong time, and all of a sudden you never get that opportunity. At least he got it."
The teapot tempest involved first-year Cubs manager Don Baylor and Mets manager Bobby Valentine and, by extension, Valentine's former manager, Tommy Lasorda, who happened to be on the trip.
The Cubs won the first game 5-3 on March 29, but Valentine protested the game because Baylor had neglected to list infielder Jeff Huson on the lineup card, instead writing the name of catcher Jeff Reed twice. It was an honest mistake on Baylor's part, and Valentine withdrew the protest, but not before some verbal back-and-forth.
"I try to ignore him as much as possible," Baylor said at the time. "I know the things he does to try to disrupt other people. I played against him. I know who his mentor is so I take it with a grain of salt."
Lasorda replied: "Tell Baylor that's a real compliment."
"If he wants to make me a bad guy, fine," Valentine said. "He was in the wrong. Why doesn't he just admit he made a mistake? It's so easy to criticize me."
In a more humorous vein, Baylor said the close opening game "almost sent me to the hospital."
An American reporter passed the comment along to a Japanese newspaper, which erroneously reported Baylor was hospitalized for high blood pressure.
"I'd like to know what hospital I was in," Baylor said. "I'd like to know what doctor I saw."
The Mets came back to win 5-1 the next night, when Benny Agbayani hit an 11th-inning grand slam off Cubs reliever Danny Young, who was making his major league debut. Young's final major league game was April 6 of that year.
Adventure and culture
Besides the baseball, the Japan trip offered opportunity for adventure and cultural enrichment.
"It was a tremendous experience," said Wasserstrom, today the director of communications for the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "The Japanese bent over backward for you. The food was good. They didn't overdo it from a scheduling standpoint. We had the games, but we had time to go and see things, to see the embassy, to see the electronics district and be able to get out."
"The thing about the trip, and I tried it as much as I could, was going out and not being afraid of being outside of your comfort zone. It's a very nice country. They are very nice people. Not everybody speaks English. I had my 10 words of Japanese on me. It was nice to go out and not be afraid to walk into a restaurant because they were at least accustomed to people coming in and not speaking Japanese. At least you had the pictures (of menu items) and you could do that."
Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was going to a baseball clinic put on by Cubs players and coaches in Yokohama. Our mode of transportation was courtesy of the U.S. Army aboard UH 60A Blackhawk helicopters. I was on board along with Cubs coach and Hall of Famer Billy Williams and his wife, Shirley, and Cubs catcher Joe Girardi and his wife, Kim. We all were equipped with headsets to listen in on copter communications.
The Pokemon craze was getting going at that time, and many of us took a subway ride to the Pokemon store, where we waited outside just to get in and buy cards for our kids back home.
One day before the official season opener, the Cubs played an exhibition game in Tokorozawa against the Seibu Lions. The bus ride there was a long one, so for the return trip, we opted for the last train out of town back to Tokyo. Boarding the train was akin to a rugby scrum, with passengers pushing and shoving just to get on. Among those in the scrum was Cubs President Andy MacPhail, the scion of baseball royalty.
"After the game, I said, 'The buses are waiting,'" Bank said. "The players all said, 'We want to go back on the train. We want to experience the train and the culture.' We got to the train station, and they shoved us into the trains. Luckily, we had one or two Japanese officials with us to tell us what stop to get off at. That was the players who wanted to take the train back."
Lines of communication
Technology and the time difference between Tokyo and Chicago -- Tokyo is 15 hours ahead of Chicago -- made for interesting challenge and opportunities.
"From a media-relations standpoint, the big thing was making sure we didn't create any intentional incidents," Wasserstrom said. "The thing I remember most was that when I was given the bullhorn to make announcements in the press box -- because initially they didn't have the PA working -- working with the translator everything I announced had to be translated into Japanese. That was really a first for us.
"While the Tokyo Dome wasn't small, the press box wasn't really a press box. It was right there in the middle of the crowd."
There was also the little matter of getting online.
"The other thing from a media standpoint that's hard to explain was how much in its infancy the internet was at that point," Wasserstrom said. "Just the issues with having to transmit stuff back to the States via AOL but even finding where it was in your room because the cords weren't where you thought they were."
Reporters got a taste of what the future would bring. In Tokyo, the games ended after 10 p.m. local time, but back home, it was not even 8 in the morning. My job was to get a quick story up on The Daily Herald's fledgling website, a new practice back then but something that's routine today.
We'd head to the (small) clubhouse for postgame quotes, and then I'd do a quick update.
Here's the fun part: I was then able to go back to the hotel, go to bed. I'd get up the next morning (still the previous late afternoon back home), pour a cup of hot tea from the pot that was constantly going in the hotel room and then write a more analytical piece along with a notes story, any necessary sidebar and a "postcard" item, featuring a vignette from the day's activities.
The trip home Friday, March 31 involved a bit of "time travel." We left the hotel at 3:45 in the afternoon, headed for the airport and arrived at O'Hare at 3:25 p.m. the same day. I was in bed early that evening and up again and wide-awake at 3 a.m. Saturday, ready to write stories ahead of the upcoming road trip -- yes, road trip -- to St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The trip to Tokyo was enlightening, exotic and exhausting, especially after a full spring training in Mesa.
Would I want to do it again? Where do I sign up?
Bruce Miles covered the Cubs for The Daily Herald from 1998 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.