In this Cinderella season for the Seattle Mariners, one thing's for certain: July 28 is going to be a sellout. The Mariners (48-13 as of June 13) will play the Minnesota Twins that day, but the expected throng will have little to do with this battle of former cellar-dwellers. No, sir, fans will be lined up for hours to get one of the Ichiro Suzuki bobblehead dolls being given away.
This year, the Mariners and Ichiro, their sweet-hitting rightfielder, have shredded more than the misconception that Japanese players can't handle Major League Baseball pitching. The team has also dispensed with some outdated notions about baseball marketing by embracing all things Japanese and turning itself into a merchandising dynamo.
At Safeco Field, fans shell out $18 for a baseball cap with the words "water warrior" written in kanji. The hottest finger food is the "Ichi Roll," a $9 spicy tuna roll from the sushi stand. Tourists from Japan arrive by the hundreds on packaged tours. And on June 8, more than 45,000 fans showed up for another promotional freebie--a San Shin! headband to celebrate last year's American League Rookie of the Year, relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. (San Shin! is Japanese for "Strike Three!")
"MEANDERING." It's a remarkable turnabout from 1992, when the woeful Mariners were on the brink of leaving the Northwest and Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi agreed to purchase the club as a gift to Seattle, home of Nintendo of America. His largesse set off a firestorm. Japanese carmakers were continuing their march on Detroit, U.S. landmarks such as New York's Rockefeller Center and California's Pebble Beach had fallen into Japanese hands, and just two days before the Mariners bid was announced, Japan's Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa criticized American workers as "too lazy." Baseball bluebloods railed about selling out America's pastime to the Japanese, and Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles declared his opposition, saying: "It's a patriotic issue for me." Polls in Seattle and across the country showed most fans didn't want Japanese ownership, either.
MLB ultimately agreed to Yamauchi's 60% acquisition, but only under the condition that he limit his voting interest to 49%. His American partners had to keep the majority voting stake, a restriction that was eliminated in 1996. "It was a meandering path, and not a particularly distinguished one," says former Commissioner Fay Vincent. Others are more blunt. "It was out-and-out racism and ignorance," says Japan expert Donald Hellman, director of the Institute for International Policy at the University of Washington.
Oh, what a difference a decade makes. Japanese is virtually a second language at Safeco Field, the team has a Japanese-language section on its Web site, and when closer Sasaki takes the mound, TV broadcasts write his name in kanji above his stats. Nintendo even has an ad in kanji behind home plate.
Buying the club isn't the only debt Seattle owes to Yamauchi. Although he has yet to attend a Mariners game, Yamauchi knew enough about marketing to suggest that the club pursue the Japan League's seven-time batting champ. "The second gift Mr. Yamauchi has given the people of Seattle is that he was the one who suggested we go after Ichiro," says team CEO Howard Lincoln. "I don't think any one of us Americans at the Mariners really understood the impact this one guy could have. We just didn't get it."
They do now. Ichiro, the only major leaguer to wear his first name on the back of his jersey, is among the American League leaders in batting average, hits, runs, and stolen bases. And his popularity is boosting the Mariners' bottom line. Everything from $6 Ichiro posters to $500 Ichiro autographed baseballs are flying out of concession stands and stores. "On a monthly basis, our team store sales are off the charts," says Lincoln, who declines to disclose specific numbers.
LIVE IN JAPAN. The Mariners' success isn't just tied to Ichiro, though. Sasaki and such other Mariners stars as designated hitter Edgar Martinez, second baseman Bret Boone, and pitcher Aaron Sele are sparkling, too. All this from a team that lost three of the game's hottest players in the past three years--Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez--and was expected at the beginning of the season to chase its division rival, the Oakland Athletics. Instead, the M's are pursuing history. They've gotten off to the second-fastest start ever, with only the 1912 New York Giants winning more of their first 60 games.
Ironically, the owners, who put up so much opposition to Yamauchi's acquisition, may benefit most. That's because international TV and merchandising rights are held by the league, not individual teams. So the yen flowing in from Japan is shared among MLB's 30 teams. "It's been great for everybody," says Commissioner Bud Selig.
MLB is in the middle of a five-year deal with the Japa-nese networks that accounts for the lion's share of the $65 million it expects from international TV rights this year. "The opportunity really comes after this," says Paul Archey, MLB vice-president for international business operations. In 2003, to be precise. That's when a bidding war will break out among Japanese TV networks vying for rights to carry the games featuring Ichiro. With Ichiro in the lineup everyday, all Mariners games are now broadcast live in Japan, and they're so popular that attendance is slumping at many Japanese ballparks. "When Ichiro's on TV, it's like the rest of the league doesn't matter," says Japanese baseball expert Robert Whiting, the author of You Gotta Have Wa.
MLB is also aggressively going after sponsorship deals in Japan. Kirin Brewery Co., Sumitomo Forestry Co., and a handful of others have shelled out millions to use the MLB logo. The players have climbed on the gravy train, too. Over the winter, Ichiro signed a three-year, $14.1 million contract. He can earn $5 million more in performance bonuses, many of which he seems likely to hit. Sasaki is in the middle of a three-year, $9.5 million deal. Already prominent pitchmen in Japan, Ichiro and Sasaki are now fielding offers from U.S. companies. "I have 30 clients, and I'm spending 98% of my time on these two guys," says their agent, Tony Attanasio. "[Ichiro and Sasaki] experienced immense adulation in Japan for years. But they didn't expect their success here to be as fanatical." Why, it's enough to make their heads bobble.
By Jay Greene in Seattle, with Ken Belson in Tokyo