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Today in Cubs history: The Cubs defeat the Mets in the first MLB game in Japan

It was the trip of a lifetime for me.

Al Yellon

It’s almost impossible for me to believe that it has been 20 years since the Cubs made their historic trip to Japan to face the Mets in the first Major League Baseball games played outside North America. It was something I felt I couldn’t possibly miss, so I spent a week in Japan, touring the country and attending the two Cubs/Mets games (as well as a pair of exhibition games the Cubs played against NPB teams).

The Cubs and Mets were chosen for this series in part because their two biggest stars at the time, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, were extremely popular in Japan. While I was in Tokyo and environs I saw Sosa’s image on everything from cellphone lanyards to billboards to the sides of various food items in 7-11 stores.

The Cubs were coming off a really bad 1999 season in which they had gone 6-24 in August (and 19-42 from Aug. 1 to the end of the season), one of the worst calendar months in team history. Meanwhile, the Mets had won the National League Wild Card in 1999 and were optimistic that they’d go farther in 2000 (they did, winning the N.L. pennant).

Each club was to be the “home” team for one game, and so it was that on March 29, 2000, 20 years ago today, it was the Mets “hosting” the Cubs at the Tokyo Dome. The sellout crowd included the Japanese royal family. While I was in Tokyo, I heard that it was the first time any of them had ever attended a professional baseball game.

The Tokyo Dome (the locals call it “The Big Egg” because of its white roof) is similar in shape and seating to the Metrodome in Minneapolis. For years, Tokyo Dome sellout crowds were announced as 55,000, and that was the number announced for this game’s crowd.

Several years later, it was revealed that Japanese teams often fudged attendance figures and that the real capacity of the Tokyo Dome is about 46,500.

At most NPB games Japanese fans bring noisemakers and musical instruments to cheer for their teams. Apparently, they were told — no one seemed to want to take credit or blame for this, although rumor has it MLB was behind the decision — to leave those at home for this series. Thus, since neither the Mets nor Cubs had a native rooting interest in Tokyo, most of the Japanese fans were unusually quiet during this game. The only real loud cheers for either team came from the area where I was sitting, where there were a lot of Americans, Cubs and Mets fans who had made the trip.

Back then, MLB didn’t have a way for season-ticket holders of the teams involved to buy tickets for games like this and online ticket purchasing was in its infancy, so I had bought my tickets through a travel agency in New York City, and it seemed like most American fans were seated in the same general area. The ticket price was ¥10,000. At the time, that was equivalent to about $90. That doesn’t seem like very much in the year 2020 for a seat for an event like that in this location (about 20 rows off the field):

Al Yellon

Keep in mind, though, that the average price for a seat comparable to that at Wrigley Field 20 years ago was about $25. This was my ticket:

A few notes about the game itself: Behind the solid pitching of Jon Lieber, who threw seven strong innings, the Cubs beat the Mets 5-3. Since this was the first game of the 2000 MLB season, for a day the Cubs were first place by themselves in the N.L. Central.

The Cubs hitting hero of the game was Shane Andrews, who hit the first home run by a North American player in an MLB game in Japan off the Mets’ Dennis Cook in the seventh inning, extending the Cubs’ 2-1 lead to 4-1. It was also the first home run of the 2000s.

Andrews had two hits and three RBI; Mark Grace also homered to give the Cubs their final run in the eighth inning, and Joe Girardi chipped in with three hits in a 12-hit offensive attack. The Cubs might have scored even more runs as they drew 10 walks off Mets pitching and left 13 men on base.

Here is Andrews’ home run [VIDEO].

And here’s Grace’s blast [VIDEO].

I’ll have the story of the second game of this series on its 20th anniversary, tomorrow.