TOKYO -- For a guy who last weekend said he wasn't coming and kept tour organizers in suspense until showing up just hours before the team's charter flight was due to depart from Los Angeles, Manny Ramirez acted mighty happy to be in Japan.
"Anybody know where I can find some good sushi?" said Ramirez, walking into a Tokyo hotel restaurant wearing a Washington Redskins jersey and accompanied by Carlos Ferreira, his first Little League coach from Washington Heights, the New York neighborhood in which Ramirez grew up.
Ferreira, an operating room assistant in Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Washington Heights, has remained close to Ramirez, accompanying him on numerous trips. "Me and him, we are like father and son," said Ferreira, who earlier that morning had come with Ramirez to the Tokyo Dome to pitch some batting practice to the World Series MVP, long before any of Ramirez's teammates on a team of major league all-stars here to play their Japanese counterparts showed up to work out.
Jet lag? Not for Ramirez and Red Sox teammate David Ortiz, who upon arriving in Japan Wednesday went to a Brazilian salsa club in Roppongi, the heart of Tokyo's international entertainment district, with several of their all-star teammates, a cast that features future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens and a number of up-and-comers, including Hank Blalock and Michael Young of the Rangers, Vernon Wells of the Blue Jays, and Miguel Cabrera of the Marlins.
And last night (Thursday morning back in Boston), there was Ramirez, wearing a native Japanese jacket, taking part in a kagamiwari, the ritual breaking of a barrel of sake (the Japanese rice wine), although in this case Ramirez and other participants eschewed the use of traditional wooden mallets for baseball bats.
The ceremony is part of many special occasions in Japan, including New Year's, weddings, and the start of a new business venture. Kagamiwari means the opening of a mirror, with kagami breaking the shiny surface of the sake. The splashing of the sake is said to bring good luck and a blessing.
In this case, it also signified another chapter in Manny and Big Papi's Big Adventure, a dizzying journey since the end of the World Series that for Ortiz, who will be joined by his wife, Tiffany, in midtrip, has included a jaunt to Disney World with Pedro Martinez, a spot on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, and an appearance scheduled to air today on the "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
"I really don't know how to feel right now," said Ortiz, who laughed while Ramirez mugged with Sadaharu Oh, the all-time home run king in Japan and manager of the Japanese team.
Ortiz, like Ramirez, spoke to the reception at a swank Tokyo hotel for about 700 people, including tour sponsors, advertisers, and one middle-aged Japanese man toting a sign reading "Sox win pennant" delighted to have both Sox players autograph his keepsake.
"The Japanese people are the best," Ortiz told the crowd. "We hope we can put on a good show for you."
That show was set to begin here tonight (5 a.m. in Boston) with Ramirez scheduled to DH and bat third and Ortiz penciled in to play first and bat cleanup.
"It's been a long year for them, and I know they did some celebrating, as they should," said Bruce Bochy of the San Diego Padres, who is managing the all-stars. "But talking to both of them, they have a great attitude. They want to play. They know the fans here want to see them, they're popular here for what they've accomplished, coming off the World Series, so they're good to go. I'll split the two in the DH role, and alternate playing positions. I'll get 'em two or three at-bats a game."
The teams will play eight games -- the first three and the last in the "Big Egg," as the Tokyo Dome is known. The clubs will travel by bullet train and plane for games in four other cities across Japan -- Fukuoka, Osaka, Sapporo, and Nagoya.
Major leaguers have been coming to Japan since 1908, when an All-America team went undefeated in 19 games against their Japanese counterparts. The current series of all-star games began in 1986, and have been played every other year since, except for the strike year of 1994. Sox players have been regular participants, with Worcester's Rich Gedman the first to go in '86. Clemens, who is scheduled to start tonight, came here for the first time in 1992. Nomar Garciaparra was here in 1998, when his teammates included Ramirez, then with the Indians, Curt Schilling, then with the Phillies, and then-Sox pitcher Tom Gordon, who is one of the few players who has been hurt while on tour here. He traces his elbow trouble, which ultimately led to reconstruction surgery, to pitching here in '98 after not having thrown a ball for a month after the end of the regular season.
Gordon's unhappy experience did not deter Derek Lowe from being part of the 2000 tour, but Tony Bernazard, the players' union official who puts together these teams, said that injury risk is one reason prospective free agents are not invited. One exception this season is outfielder Moises Alou, whose contract option was not picked up by the Chicago Cubs just before the trip, but elected to come, anyway.
The tour, a joint venture of Major League Baseball and the players' association, is worth about $120,000 apiece to the players, with money coming from rights fees, the rights-holder this year being the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper group. Mainichi's sponsorship of the tour may help to explain the absence of Yankees star Hideki Matsui from the tour. The Yankees share a working agreement with the Yomiuri Giants, and with negotiations between Yomiuri, another media giant, and the Yankees ongoing two years ago, when Yomiuri was sponsor of the tour, George Steinbrenner gave his permission to stars Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi to play. With no similar incentive this year for Matsui, arguably the most beloved player in Japan, he declined an invitation, citing exhaustion as another reason, according to tour officials.
Also absent is Ichiro Suzuki, who set the season record for hits with the Seattle Mariners and has rock-star status in his home country. Ichiro said he had previous engagements.
There are other financial incentives for players to come, especially superstars of the magnitude of Clemens and Barry Bonds, who has made four previous visits here and was planning to come again this year but had arthroscopic knee surgery after the season. There are endorsement deals and appearance fees, such as the $50,000 Tokyo Broadcasting Systems paid to have Clemens appear at a dinner Wednesday night.
Clemens was surprised at that affair when star Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara, a fastballer who struck out Bonds, Giambi, and Williams in succession in the 2002 game, took off his sports coat, opened up his shirt, and revealed a "Roger Clemens 300 wins" T-shirt underneath. Uehara is a huge Clemens fan, and the Rocket obliged by signing the shirt for him.
Clemens will pitch four or five innings in the opener, according to Bochy, then is scheduled to pitch the fifth game of the tour before leaving the team and returning home. There is a chance this could be the last time he pitches in a big league uniform, though Clemens, who will be 43 in August, is leaving the same 1 percent chance that he'll be back in 2005 as he did last winter, when he came out of retirement and signed with his hometown Houston Astros.
"He shocked me with the year he had," Bochy said. "The guy's retiring, and then he puts up the year he had? That's pretty amazing. My guess is he'll be back, but I haven't won too many bets lately."