By Jim Caple | April 09, 2019, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

 

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, and while they may be nearly 20 months away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.

 

TOKYO – Major League Baseball was back in Tokyo last month, as the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics opened the season March 20 and 21 at the Tokyo Dome.

The sport will be back in Tokyo in an even bigger way in 2020, when baseball rejoins the Olympic program at the 2020 Games.

“We’re happy it’s back in the Olympics,” said Jim Small, the MLB senior vice president international. “We think it’s only a good thing for baseball around the world.”

It’s no coincidence that MLB elected to play games in Tokyo, or that the sport’s 12-year absence from the Olympics will end there. Baseball is the most popular sport in Japan, and it has been for a long time.

“Baseball is still No. 1 on polls,” said Robert Whiting, a best-selling author who has written about Japanese baseball. “Sixty percent of people say baseball is their favorite sport.”

Whiting wrote baseball arrived in Japan in the 1870s, when a couple American teachers had their students play it. Then, in 1915, the Koshien high school baseball tournament began. More than a century later, Koshien remains one of the most popular events in Japan. It turns the teen players into national celebrities and draws sellout crowds with TV ratings sometimes as high as 60 percent. Whiting has described it as the country’s equivalent of the United States’ Super Bowl and World Series.

All the while, “Americas pastime” has forged deep bonds in the Land of the Rising Sun.

American major leagues have sent star players to Japan many times to play a series of games after the regular season ended, including way back in 1934, when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were on the trip. Those appearances were vastly popular, and Japan’s professional league started soon after.

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David Robertson pitches at the 2017 World Baseball Classic on March 22, 2017 in Los Angeles.

 

Since 2000, MLB has opened its regular reason in Japan five times, including this year.

The 2019 games drew very enthusiastic sellout crowds of more than 45,000 fans who would stand and cheer, with a great many wearing Ichiro Suzuki jerseys and holding up signs in his honor.

The Mariners’ participation in the Tokyo series was no coincidence.

In 2001, the speedy Ichiro left his native Japan to join the Mariners, where he promptly won the MVP Award while leading Seattle to a record 116 wins. After five and a half seasons away from Seattle, Ichiro returned in 2018 and then retired after this year’s opening series in Tokyo.

Former pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa said that Ichiro is so popular in Japan that “he is not just a baseball player. He is like Madonna and Michael Jackson.” 

No wonder, then, that there is an Ichiro museum in Nagoya where he grew up. There also are museums for Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka — other Japanese stars who followed Ichiro to MLB stardom — in other cities, just another example of baseball popularity there.

For all of the shared ties between Japanese and U.S. baseball, Japan has developed its own unique qualities, too. During their regular-season games, some Japanese fans will bang thunderstix, blow horns and sing in the organized rooting sections. During the Mariners-Athletics series, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was even being played at the subway stop next to the Tokyo Dome.

With that fan passion — and with Japan also guaranteed to compete in the sport with a host nation berth — the Olympic baseball games will certainly draw boisterous crowds as well. The games will be played at Yokohama Stadium, a nice, open-air ballpark that is roughly 20 miles outside of Tokyo, and Fukushima’s Azuma Stadium, which is 150 miles away. 

The host country will certainly be among the favorites in 2020.

Almost 60 Japanese players have come over to the U.S. to play in the majors, virtually all after Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers in 1995. The most popular of the current players is Shohei Ohtani, both a pitcher and hitter like Babe Ruth was in his early days, and who was last year’s Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Angels.

Because their players are so good, Japan has won two World Baseball Classic tournaments (2006 and 2009). But it has not won a gold medal at the Olympic Games, where MLB players haven’t participated, taking home two bronze medals and one silver.

One thing is for sure, though: The Japanese definitely will work hard to win gold, as they always do in baseball.

For instance, players in Japan are required to practice much longer and harder than players in the U.S. Some pitchers sometimes throw 300 pitches in a session each week, while there are fungo drills where fielders take 200 to 300 grounders, which can wear on a player. 

“During spring training camp, it’s long, like nine or 10 hours,” said pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who left the Seibu Lions and signed with the Seattle Mariners this winter. “The more that you perform and do well, though, the more freedom you get. You get your practice and work in, and that’s another motivator to get better.”

And considering how good they are, Japan could quite possibly win its first baseball gold medal. With many, many fans cheering madly.

Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.