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Spring Training 2004

'We're tired but excited'

The Rays' flight to Japan was uneventful. Now they're ready for some culture and some baseball.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 27, 2004

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
In the early morning hours Japanese fans wait patiently for autographs from their favorite Devil Rays arriving at the team hotel in Tokyo.
Japan Air Lines director of charter sales Norimasa Kawanishi greets the Rays as they arrive in Tokyo.
Rays players, from left, Jesus Colome, Jose Cruz and Victor Zambrano laugh during a game of dominoes on their flight on Thursday from here to San Francisco.

TOKYO - Getting here wasn't half the battle the Devil Rays expected. Now they'll see how much they can enjoy the rest of their Japanese adventure.

The Rays made it to their hotel about 21 hours after leaving Tropicana Field on Thursday afternoon, spending more than 16 hours in the air flying more than 7,000 miles, plus a welcomed stop in San Francisco. Their body clocks may have been expecting Friday lunch in Tampa Bay, but thanks to the 14-hour time difference, it was 2:30 a.m. Saturday Tokyo time when they were standing in the lobby of the Hotel New Otani.

Still, they got through the journey relatively well.

"Everybody was looking at it like a dreadful thing," infielder Damian Rolls said. "But the flight really wasn't that bad. It was a lot less painful than I thought it would be."

The Rays were greeted at Haneda airport by about 30 photographers, remnants of a large crowd that covered the earlier arrival of Hideki Matsui and the Yankees. A couple of dozen fans were still waiting for the Rays when their five buses pulled up to the fancy hotel, one waving a Rocco Baldelli jersey and screaming the young star's name.

After a short night's rest, they were off to begin a busy week, starting with an 30-minute media session featuring manager Lou Piniella and Aubrey Huff, Tino Martinez, Carl Crawford and Baldelli and questions and answers in two languages. "Interesting," Martinez said.

Next was a Tokyo Dome workout before a throbbing Kids Day crowd in excess of 20,000. "I've never seen anything like it," Piniella said.

They had a formal welcoming reception, then had to be up early Sunday for a noon exhibition (10 tonight Tampa Bay time), another Monday night, then regular-season games Tuesday and Wednesday against the Yankees.

"We're tired but excited," managing general partner Vince Naimoli said during a small welcoming reception at the hotel. "It wasn't as long of a flight as you think it is."

Long day's night

Obviously, the Rays traveled for a long time, long enough to span three days and get served three meals on their chartered Japan Air Lines 747.

But it didn't seem to be that long of a trip.

Passengers spent much of the five-hour first leg from St. Pete-Clearwater Airport to San Francisco engaged in lively conversation and heated games of cards and dominoes, taking advantage of the relaxed charter rules to roam the aisles and stack unused seat cushions for makeshift game tables.

The 90-minute layover in San Francisco provided a chance to get off the plane, walk around and stretch. It was also an opportunity for a handful of players to dash off for a last "American" meal, grabbing hamburgers at airport food stands.

The second leg was a lot more mellow, the plane relatively dark and quiet for most of the 11-hour trip across the Pacific Ocean as most passengers - one way or another - got at least a few hours of sleep.

"I played cards until Frisco, took a couple Tylenol PMs and woke up eight hours later," catcher Toby Hall said.

In the first-class section, where the seats recline horizontally, Piniella, general manager Chuck LaMar and Naimoli passed the time by reading, doing paperwork and napping.

"I didn't have a drink the whole trip," Piniella said. "How's that?"

Special treatment

The sheer size of the 350-seat plane made it special, and the Japan opening series logos on the headrest covers and baseball highlights on the monitors made it official.

There were a few other features that were a little different - in-seat entertainment monitors that included movies, music, video games and the "bird view camera" allowing passengers to look straight from the cockpit or straight down from the bottom of the plane.

In the seat-back pocket with the usual literature and safety information was a pair of light blue terry slippers that were a popular choice. Each passenger also got a small JAL robe, called a kimono.

Most different was food service, outlined in 16-page menu books that included a best of luck message (kento wo oinorishimasu) from JAL president Katsuo Haneda.

Dinner on the first leg was filet of steak with chateaubriand sauce and sauteed fillet of sea bass with tomato Mousseline sauce. From San Francisco to Tokyo, there was a second, with a choice of western (beef fillet, grilled swordfish or penne pasta) or Japanese (tuna and squid sushi, simmered Hizikia seaweed with fried fish cake, or Chilean sea bass) menus.

There were soft drinks, Perrier and plenty of water so passengers could stay hydrated, plus a choice of cold green or oolong tea, and plenty of Japanese beer: Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and Suntory.

After several rounds of snacks - everything from vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream to chocolate Toppo (a brand of Japanese cookie) - there was a full breakfast served - fresh fruit, a muffin, and crepe with endive and ham mornay sauce.

For some, it wasn't enough.

"The portions were too small," Crawford said. "I ate like six times, and I'm still starving."

Devil Rays mania

Matsui and the Yankees are clearly the headline attractions. But the Rays have their Far East fans, too, based on the number of Japanese media that covered the team through the spring and the camera crews who were waiting for them at the airport.

Baldelli's popularity is logical, because he was considered Matsui's main rival for AL rookie of the year. But there was just as much if not more interest upon arrival in Martinez, a phenomenon even he couldn't figure out.

"I'm not big over here," he said, shrugging. "Maybe they just have my (baseball) card. Or maybe it's just the exposure of playing a few years for the Yankees."

For the next week, there are going to be a lot of things that don't exactly make sense.

[Last modified March 27, 2004, 06:23:02]

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