NAPLES, Fla. -- Major League Baseball is opening its regular season in Japan's 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome next March for the third time, it was announced on Wednesday, with the defending World Series champion Red Sox facing the A's. The five days of festivities include regular-season games between the two clubs on March 25 and 26, exhibition day-night doubleheaders against Nippon Professional Baseball teams on March 22 and 23, and an off-day workout sandwiched in between on March 24. The announcement coincided with the owners gathering for their final quarterly meetings of the year on Wednesday and Thursday at a local resort hotel.
"We were proud to get the invitation from MLB and Yomiuri," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino told MLB.com on Wednesday. "It comes at a good time for us, because we want to express our gratitude to the Japanese baseball world for the contribution their two pitchers made to our World Series championship." As it has been done in the past, Yomiuri, which owns the Central League's Giants and is one of the largest media corporations in the world, will sponsor and host the games in Tokyo Dome. It's the fifth time MLB is playing its season-opener internationally. It initially happened in 1999, when the Padres opened against the Rockies at Monterrey, Mexico. But this will be the first time the Red Sox or A's play regular-season games outside of North America. The Red Sox, with former Japanese League pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, are anticipated to be the principal draw in Tokyo -- much like the Yankees were in 2004 when former Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui returned to his home country for the first time wearing the famous pinstripes. The Yankees played Tampa Bay there in 2004, and the Mets played the Cubs in the first Japan opener in 2000. In 2001, the Blue Jays and Rangers opened in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the Expos also played 22 of their "home games" during each of the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The Padres and the Mets were the first teams to play a regular-season series internationally when they met in Monterrey during the 1996 season. Lucchino was the president of the Padres on both occasions when they played in Mexico and was a staunch proponent of obtaining Matsuzaka and Okajima, who both left Japan as free agents to join the Red Sox prior to the 2007 season. The Red Sox have also recently developed a working agreement with the Chiba Lotte club in Japan's Pacific League. "I was very pleased we were able to work that out," Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, said on Wednesday about the March matchup in Japan. "We are pleased that we were able to bring together our sponsor, the Red Sox and Oakland, and work out the logistics. This is the third time we're opening the season in Japan. We're bringing back two Japanese stars to Japan, and the world champions to boot. It will make this a very special event for us." Oakland missed its first Japanese opportunity when a two-game opener of the 2003 season against the Mariners in Tokyo Dome was canceled because of the beginning of the war in Iraq. It seems to be smooth sailing this time around for the A's, who will sacrifice a pair of home games in Oakland next season to accommodate the logistics of the trip. "The Oakland A's are very excited and honored to be opening the 2008 season in Japan," Michael Crowley, the team's president, said. "Baseball is truly a game without borders, and we are pleased to have the opportunity to be a part of the game's growth on the international level." Both the A's and Red Sox will return to the U.S. to conclude Spring Training before resuming their regular-season schedules. Because the second World Baseball Classic is scheduled for March 2009, MLB officials have been working feverishly for months to set up next year's Asian extravaganza. Signs also point to the Padres and Dodgers playing exhibition games in Beijing, China, on March 15-16, 2008. Beijing will be host to the Summer Olympics from Aug. 8-24, 2008, and is staging what may be the final Games' medal competition in two small baseball stadiums outside the city. Demonstration games were already played there this past summer, and the exhibition games are slated for the larger of the two facilities, which holds 12,000 people. It would be the first MLB games of any kind in that country, which banned baseball during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The delay in making that announcement has nothing to do at this point with MLB, DuPuy said, since the Padres, Dodgers and players union are all in agreement about going. "It's getting the permits from the [Chinese] government," he said. "It's an administrative process and we want to be very sensitive to the needs and the protocols of the Chinese government. It's the first time we've ever done this and they're very busy with it being their Olympic year. They've been very supportive of it and we're hopeful of getting it done."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.