OSAKA, Japan -- If there were any doubts that the D-backs are known by baseball fans in Japan, it was erased early Thursday morning when the five-member contingent of executives stepped off the plane at 4:30 a.m. at Tokyo's Haneda airport. Several young fans were waiting for D-backs legend Luis Gonzalez in the terminal to ask for an autograph, kicking off a six-day goodwill tour that will see the club stop in four cities, three stadiums and meet with several key figures throughout the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
"This is an important and long overdue trip that will enable us to create and cultivate partnerships throughout this great country," said D-backs president & CEO Derrick Hall. "We value the passion exhibited by these great fans each and every day, and we treasure the friendships we continue to establish and embrace."
With a 16-hour time difference and an arrival before sunrise, the group was able to listen to the D-backs finish off a three-game sweep of the Dodgers on the MLB At Bat app shortly after arriving in Tokyo. Then came the first traditional meal of the trip, as the group headed to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
"This is definitely the earliest I've ever eaten sushi," said Gonzalez, who later complemented his traditional meal with a stop at McDonald's. "I like to try the local foods, but I can never turn down a taste of home."
The team's first meeting of the day was with NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato and several top executives on his staff. The mutual respect was evident right away. Kato, who served as the Japanese Ambassador to the United States from 2001-08, was able to rattle off many of Gonzalez's career statistics, while recalling memories of watching Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s during their goodwill trips to Japan.
Kato was also aware of the D-backs' efforts in the community and likened the franchise to those who come from the north of Japan, who he said are known for having kind hearts. The D-backs' executives will visit that area of the country on Saturday when they stop in Sendai, the hometown of D-backs pitcher Takashi Saito, which was devastated in the tsunami and earthquake in 2011.
"This is a goodwill trip involving our executives, who care deeply for not only our own community, but the betterment of those abroad," said Hall.
Following the traditional exchange of gifts with Commissioner Kato, the D-backs' delegation boarded a bullet train to Osaka, where Gonzalez hosted an impromptu clinic with a group of youths playing in a park across the street from his hotel. It was the highlight of the day for Gonzalez, who had previously toured Japan with a group of Major League All-Stars after the 2000 season.
"It's amazing that even when we don't speak a word of Japanese and they don't understand any English, the game of baseball translates perfectly," he said. "I could have stayed out there playing with them all day long."
But Gonzalez and the rest of the group had plans to head for historic Koshien Stadium, which opened in 1924 and is home to the Hanshin Tigers, as well as the nation's top high school tournament, which begins next week. After being greeted by several team executives, Hall, Gonzalez and general manager Kevin Towers took part in a news conference attended by more than 30 media members from many major outlets across the country.
On the top of everyone's minds were the thoughts of Towers and Hall regarding Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa and shortstop Takashi Toritani. Both players are rumored to be interested in heading to the United States as free agents after the season. However, both executives refrained from speaking specifically about the popular Tigers duo.
"I've probably seen as much video on Japanese players as I see on American players thanks to the great work of Mack Hayashi, our director of Pacific Rim operations," said Towers. "I certainly wouldn't comment specifically about those two players, but I am extremely impressed with the Japanese style of baseball. From a scouting standpoint, this is definitely an important trip for me and for the D-backs."
Josh Rawitch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.