Far East Flinging

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For those who missed it, the first pitch of the 2008 MLB season was a Joe Blanton fastball, taken on the inside corner, for a strike by Bosox second-sacker Dustin Pedroia.

The delivery came at around 7:10 p.m. in the Tokyo Dome, about 6:10 a.m. on the east coast.

Baseball fans can likely expect more of this – and the allusion isn’t to the second game of the Oakland A’s-Red Sox Far Eastern set tomorrow — in the future.

With the earliest start to baseball season ever — and more preseason games still being played back in the U.S., including the Sox taking on the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine and a Saturday night date at the LA Coliseum this weekend –  MLB commissioner Bud Selig waxed eloquent on ESPN2’s telecast about how the “internationalization of the sport” will be a priority over the next “four to five years.” He told ESPN2 commentators Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips that as plane travel becomes “more sophisticated,” MLB will play in many places as possible, because it was “likely no team will move.”

Selig had already referred to the March 15 exhibition game between Dodgers and Padres in Beijing, as the weekend that every one will remember “five to 10 years from now that got everything” started. He also mentioned the second World Baseball Classic next year, all of whose opening-round games are slated to be played outside the States.

Of course, the Montreal Expos, the predecessors to the Washington Nationals, played regular-season games in Puerto Rico a few years back. Monterrey, Mexico served as a 1999 opener between the San Diego Padres-Colorado Rockies, and there have been other opening series in Japan. As such, fans should expect even more MLB contests in the Orient, the Caribbean and south of the border. Figure there will be others in more time zone-friendly in Latin and South America in the years to come. Selig also talked about opening up a season in Europe at some point.

All this about business: American’s true national pastime, although we’re down big thus far in 2008.

But baseball’s 2008 prospects seem bright. Selig cited projections calling for 81 million ticket sales, which would equate to about a 2.7 million per-club average, including five/six teams with virtual sellouts for the season. Thus, the record $6.5 billion in revenue MLB recorded last year appears poised to fall.

“The business of baseball and the sport itself had never been in better shape,” said Selig a former car salesman, who perhaps has forgotten to turn the headlights off about the Barry Bonds case and the pathetic attempts by Roger Clemens to shed himself of the Mitchell Report.

Selig told the ESPNers that baseball has the toughest drug testing policy in sports and the number of positive tests had decreased substantially. “Steroids are not a baseball problem, but a societal problem." (How about an NFL problems, where many of Roger Goodell’s charges weigh close to 300 pound and, oh so, naturally run the 40 in under five seconds.)

Meanwhile, a drugfree.org spot ran between innings, depicting a crumbling statue of an athlete, as copy intoned: “Steroid don’t make great athletes, they destroy them.”

As for the game itself, ESPN didn’t bring the K Zone to Tokyo. Good call: not many of Dice K’s pitches would have found it. Daisuke Matzusaka struggled mightily with his control at the outset, suggesting that you can’t go home again to Japan either.

But the right-hander battled through five walks and a hit batsman over five innings, to the accompaniment of footage of his Japanese pro career and tale of his 250 pitch, 17-inning performance in a high school title game.

Manny Ramirez erased Dice K’s 2-0 deficit in the top of the sixth, with a two-run double inside the bag at third. And when Brandon Moss, subbing for J.D. Drew in right, drove home the dreadlocked left fielder, the Sox were in front, a position they no doubt will grow accustomed to as the heavy favorites to repeat as World Series victors.

Work grooming duty called and when I re-emerged, the A’s didn’t prove as anemic as I expected. 3B Jack Hannahan (Eric Chavez is on the DL, still recovering from back surgery) hit a two-run dinger and all was right with the baseball world as I headed to the train.

Keeping tabs of the action on ESPN Gamecast, as I started to write this report, I was crushed when Moss knocked his first HR in the bigs off A’s closer Houston Street to knot matters with one out in the ninth. With the No. 6 subway uncooperative, I finally made it to the office, turned on the set and saw Jonathan Papelbon one out away from nailing down a 6-5 victory.

A’s catcher Kurt, not Ichiro, Suzuki, grounded to second to end it. Manny, being Manny, the recap showed, had won it for the Sox in the top of the 10th with a two-run double off the center field wall. Hideki Okajima was the winner, so there was even more symmetry to this jaunt to Japan.

All might have been right for the Red Sox Nation, but for the rest of us, Opening Day wasn’t baseball like it oughtta be.