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Yankees-Rays Tokyo opener is set
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12/17/2003  5:08 PM ET 
Yankees-Rays Tokyo opener is set
Teams will play two games to start 2004 season
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Hideki Matsui knocked in 106 runs during his rookie season with the Yankees. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees will open the 2004 season with a two-game series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on March 30-31 in Japan's Tokyo Dome, Major League Baseball and the players association said on Wednesday in a joint announcement.

It will be the second time MLB opens a season in Japan and the fourth time in the past six years Opening Day is being staged internationally.

The Yankees and Devil Rays will play doubleheaders against the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants on March 28-29 with the Yankees playing the Giants in a night game and the Devil Rays playing the Tigers in a day game on March 28. The next day, the Yankees play the Tigers in the day game and the Devil Rays play the Giants at night. There will be workouts on March 30 and more than 20,000 Japanese youngsters are being invited to what MLB is calling a "kids day" in the Tokyo Dome.

To accommodate the schedule change, both teams will return to Florida to finish Spring Training and then resume regular season play with two more games against each other in the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg on April 6-7. The the Yankees open their home schedule on April 8 against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. The two games against the Yankees in the Tokyo Dome will be taken from Tampa Bay's home schedule and games originally scheduled for Tampa Bay on April 13 and 14 have been moved to New York, where the season was originally slated to open.

"Major League Baseball is excited about returning to Tokyo to open the 2004 season," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "We are pleased that the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays have accepted our invitation to participate in the 2004 Opening Series, and we anticipate that, with the support of our long-time partner Yomiuri, these games will help further promote the global expansion of Major League Baseball.

"The baseball fans in Japan have been incredibly supportive of Major League Baseball and we look forward to returning to Japan in 2004."

Selig had promised that MLB would return to Japan after the decision was made this past March to move a season-opening, two-game series that had been planned to be played in Tokyo between Seattle and Oakland. That series was moved to the U.S. because of concerns over the pending start of the war in Iraq.

The Mariners, whose majority owner is Nintendo's Hiroshi Yamauchi, were a strong choice to open in Japan after this year's cancellation. But the Mariners decided to forgo the trip to concentrate on preparing for the regular season. Yamauchi has never seen the Mariners play in person during his 12 years of ownership.

"We were just depressed after missing the playoffs the last two years and didn't think the timing was right to go over there next season," said Chuck Armstrong, the Mariners' president.

The announcement ended months of negotiations between MLB and the Yankees, who have never played a regular season game outside of North America. The Yankees were an obvious choice for two reasons, said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president of international business operations: In 2002, the Yankees and Yomiuri, one of the world's largest media conglomerates, signed an agreement to share scouting information and minor league personnel.

The trip will also highlight the return of former Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees after the 2002 season.

The Yankees sent Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi to Japan for the 2002 MLB All-Star tour against their rivals from the Nippon Professional Baseball League. It was the first time Yankees players have been sent on the Japan tour under the watch of George Steinbrenner, the team's principal owner.

"For the first time in the more than 30 years that I have been the team's principal owner, the Yankees will be going to Japan to open the 2004 season," Steinbrenner said. "I have always opposed such a trip because of the stress it puts on the players, but I have accepted the invitation this year because of my deep respect and friendship for Mr. (Tsuneo) Watanabe (owner of the Giants). He is a great person, a great friend and the guiding leader in Japanese baseball. This will be a wonderful event for the Yankees and for the people of Japan."

Matsui, who narrowly missed winning this past season's American League Rookie of the Year Award, was a three-time Most Valuable Player in the Japan's Central League and played 10 years for the Giants. He last played in Japan during the tour of MLB All-Stars in November 2002. Matsui was named the most popular athlete in Japan for 2002 and 75 million Japanese fans watched the 2003 World Series on television as Matsui's Yankees lost to the Florida Marlins.

"It was Matsui's home park for 10 years," Archey said of the Tokyo Dome. "Obviously, he's going to be well received. It'll be a great moment."

The first and only time MLB played regular-season games in Japan was when the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs split a two-game series in the Tokyo Dome to open the 2000 season. The two games drew 110,000 in the 55,000-seat dome.

The Padres and Rockies opened the 1999 season in Monterrey, Mexico, and in 2001, the Blue Jays opened against the Rangers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Montreal Expos played 22 games this past season in San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium and will play the same number of games there again in 2004.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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