Jerry Blevins on his experience in the Japan All-Star Series
In November, Jerry Blevins joined other Major League All-Stars in a tour of Japan, the Japan All-Star Series. When he returned from his second visit to Japan, Blevins wanted to offer a first-person account of the remarkable trip. What follows is straight from the mind of the Nationals’ left-hander.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved traveling. Experiencing new cultures — trying new foods, seeing new places, hearing different languages — has filled my dreams since I was a kid. Intriguing me, and captivating my imagination and curiosity.
The truth is, I’m a curious person by nature. That’s why my friends call me ‘Whiskers.’
(No one calls me ‘Whiskers’. I stole that from Will Ferrell. ‘Whiskers’ isn’t something I want to be called even though I’ve definitely been called worse.)
Anyway, back to traveling. Baseball has given me many opportunities to travel while playing the game I love. In 2012, I was a member of the Oakland A’s and we opened the season playing the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo. It was, in short, an amazing trip.
I enjoyed Tokyo so much I had planned on going back on vacation. When I heard that MLB and the MLB Players Association were putting together a team to play in Japan against their national team, Samurai Japan, I couldn’t put my name in the mix fast enough.
Thankfully for me, and my fiancé, Whitney, who came with me, I was selected. And during this trip, we would be playing Samurai Japan in Tokyo, as well as, Osaka, Sapporo, and Okinawa.
Before we even left I knew this was going to be a great trip. Not only did Whitney and I get to travel to these cities, but I got to play baseball with an amazingly talented roster. Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Yasiel Puig and Justin Morneau were just a few of the players. It was a true all-star caliber team.
Plus some guy named Blevins.
One of the things I love about travel is seeing the differences in cultures. But one of the things I love about baseball is that it is virtually the same game wherever it is played.
There are subtle differences about how each country chooses to execute the game. But at it’s core, baseball is baseball: nine innings, three strikes, three outs.
Japanese baseball has evolved, along with the game we know in America. Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing baseball in Cooperstown in 1839, but an American teacher named Horace Wilson taught his students in Tokyo the game sometime between 1867 and 1873. From there, Japan adopted baseball as its own country’s favorite sport.
Without question, the level of talent in Japan makes them an integral part of baseball’s international elite. The talent of those players has translated to MLB success as well. Players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Norichika Aoki, Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish, and so on, can not only hold their own in MLB, but are some of the best our game has to offer. Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada even played for our MLB team against Samurai Japan on this trip.
There were some future MLB players on the Samurai Japan team too. Two pitchers to keep an eye on are Kenta Maeda and Shohei Otani.
As I mentioned, part of what makes baseball so great is that it is a game that transcends differences. The game itself is always the same. That said, playing a baseball game in Japan is a different experience than playing in the US.
Instead of players picking a walkout song, the fans sing a song for that individual player. They bang on drums and blow trumpets and create a tune specific to that player. I found myself, throughout the tournament, humming along with a couple of the more catchy tunes.
Also, there is no heckling. The Japanese fans are always positive in their cheering. Some American players I know might miss the heckling, others wouldn’t. But I found it so interesting that it just isn’t a part of Japanese baseball at all.
Still, even with the differences in my experiences of playing in Japan, like I said before, baseball is baseball. It is one of the many things I love about the game. But I won’t get into the others, that is an entirely different story.
Our first exhibition game was held in Osaka. We played at Koshien Stadium, where Babe Ruth played on MLB’s 1934 tour. It is still in really good shape, considering it was built in 1924.
After the exhibition game, we played our first game that counted in the Osaka Dome. When we took batting practice, I couldn’t help but constantly look up at the roof. It made me feel like I was inside a space ship. Very different from any dome I’ve been in before.
When we were done playing in Osaka, Whitney and I joined a large portion of the traveling party in driving to Kyoto on our off-day before heading to our next game in Tokyo.
Kyoto was incredible. If you ever go to Japan, I would highly suggest you plan to go to Kyoto as part of your trip. The city is wonderfully preserved to showcase Japan’s history and culture. The architecture with temples and shrines are wonderful to see. A place where Japanese traditions are still alive today. If you have ever seen a samurai movie, chances are it was filmed in Kyoto.
For our lunch break, all the players, coaches, wives, and staff on the trip got to experience a geisha performance. Geishas danced and sang for us as we ate. Towards the end of our lunch, they had some of us participate in one of their dances. The dance was both an ode to baseball with a take on rock, paper, scissors.
Of course, no one volunteered right away and Whitney pushed me forward to participate. I ended up beating Puig in a rock, paper, scissors battle. It is up for debate who was the better dancer, but I like to think I held my own. Whitney went up as well and won her match against Julianna Zobrist. International Geisha Rock-Paper-Scissors Champions! We never did get our trophy. Must be in the mail.
We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. That was great — once we got on it. The adventure began immediately, as we had a small window from when the doors opened on the train to let passengers in to when they closed. It was a concerted effort to get all of us, with our stuff, on the train before they closed the doors and took off. Apparently, on past trips some people were left behind, bags in hand, as the train sped away.
Once on the train, there wasn’t much to it. It was super smooth as it sped towards Tokyo. The highlight of the ride was getting to see Mt. Fuji. That is a sight. Magnificent how it rises above all that surrounds it.
While in Tokyo, the team was invited to visit the US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. The complex where we were invited was amazing. It is in the heart of Tokyo, surrounded by tall buildings. But on the grounds, there is a huge garden and a huge house where she lives. It is wonderful to walk in the yard and feel serene while you look up and see skyscrapers.
I made sure I took a photo in the same room where Emperor Hirohito and General McArthur took their famous photo together after Japan surrendered in World War II.
One of the highlights of Tokyo was seeing some of the presentations given to our Players Trust and some of our players.
On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit with an earthquake and tsunami. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Over 15,000 were killed with tens of thousands more being displaced without homes. I can’t even pretend to be able to do that tragedy justice with a few short sentences as to how much damage was caused.
The Players Trust, our charitable foundation where we support causes that are important to us as a group, donated $1 million to help in the recovery of the earthquake and tsunami. Before one of our games in Tokyo, the players and Players Trust director, Melissa Persaud, got to see five presentations from the five different recipients of our grants.
It was touching and inspiring to see how they were using our donations to better their lives and the lives of those in their community. If you want to know more about it, visit: playerstrust.org.
The morning before we left Tokyo, Whitney and I went to Shibuya Crossing. It is a famous intersection where five streets meet. All the traffic lights turn red at the same time, and then it’s a true scramble. We sat up in a second-story Starbucks to watch it for a while. The Starbucks itself was an adventure — it is one of the busiest in the world. But from there, the view of the crossing is hard to beat. A full sea of people embark to cross at the same time, filling the streets.
From Tokyo, we flew to Sapporo. Sapporo is famous for their beer, of course, but also for their snow. The city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972. Luckily for us, there was only a couple of inches on the ground.
We played our game in the Sapporo Dome. This is easily the biggest dome I’ve ever seen. I was told it could hold the Tokyo Dome inside its own dome. The dome is famous for having a retractable surface. The baseball games are held on turf and soccer games are played on grass. The grass surface slides in when some of the bleachers are rotated to accommodate the change. Unfortunately, they opted for fiscal responsibility and didn’t acquiesce to my request to see the switch at work for my own amusement.
And yes, I did have a Sapporo while in Sapporo. And it was glorious. On the same night I drank their famous beer, I tried a food that wasn’t glorious in any sense.
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 18, 2014
Whitney and I went to dinner with Rob Wooten of the Brewers and his wife, Chris Capuano of the Yankees and his wife, and Randy Choate of the Cardinals and his wife. As we were reading the menus we came across the name “Maguro Shuto.” The translation under the item was as follows: Fish Guts pickled in Salt of the Tuna. As soon as he read this, Rob Wooten yells, “I dare you to eat that!” Wonderful Rob, thanks buddy.
If you follow me on twitter, @JerryBlevins_13, you might have seen the video I posted of me completing this dare. If you happened to miss that gem I’ll help you out. It was not good. I thought something might have been lost in translation. Turns out, the only thing lost was my appetite.
We ended our tour of Japan by flying from the northern city of Sapporo to the southern city of Okinawa.
Okinawa was a great place to end the trip. It was warm and touristy in the best sense. Most of the people we ran into were on vacation; including the Japanese people. Along with the warm weather, Okinawa is home to 32 US military bases. The best thing about playing in Okinawa for myself, and a lot of the other players, was the ability to play in front of a large contingent of US military personnel.
To end the trip playing in front of the wonderful and mixed crowd of Japanese and Americans was perfect.
Japan is really a beautiful country. I love a city with a skyline and Japan has several of them. The skylines of Osaka and Tokyo are true masterpieces. They are right up there on my list with some of my favorite American road stops in San Francisco, Toronto, and Chicago.
If mountains are your thing, Mt. Fuji is beauty in the truest sense. It is breathtaking. There is a reason why so many have featured it in paintings. It’s too bad I only got to see it from the bullet train this visit. During the Opening Series in 2012, I was fortunate enough to take a helicopter ride nearby, and was able to admire it from a better perspective. But even from a speeding train, its beauty is unmistakable.
Japan is also extremely clean. There isn’t any trash on the ground — wherever you look. Some of the other players and I used to search for it in public places, to just point it out to each other. “There it is! Look at it!” I carried an empty bottle I saw on the ground for 20 minutes looking for a trash can while walking through Tokyo before I threw it away in the hotel — not because I’m a great person, but because there aren’t any trash cans on the streets either.
I was also told it’s considered rude to eat and drink while walking in public. They have so much respect for their country, and each other, that they don’t want to soil it. People either consume what they buy where they buy it and throw it away there, or they take the trash home with them and recycle it themselves. Hence, no trash cans on the streets.
Whatever the reason for the cleanliness, it is a great part of their culture and one I wish we would adopt in a more widespread way here in the US.
Remember back at the beginning here when I let you all in on my curious nature? I think my curiosity has developed from one basic question that I’ve often asked myself: “What would my career be if I were born _____?”
If I were born in England, would I be a soccer player? Had my parents lived in Canada, would I be playing hockey? Probably not, but curling looks like a blast. My aspirations to understand something or someone that is different from me is what pushes me to travel. I think I’ve always possessed an ability to empathize with others and understand where they are coming from. And learning as much as I can about other places and cultures is an extension of that.
So the question is: what if I were born in Japan? I think that answer is a fun one.
I believe I would still be a professional baseball player. That is where my love and respect for Japan starts. The beautiful country, with beautiful people, keep me talking about it. Hopefully I will be able to visit it again.