At a time when Major League Baseball was embarking on globalization, Mark McGwire was insisting on isolation for the Cardinals.
Twenty years ago, in March 2000, the Cardinals could have faced the Mets in the first major-league regular-season game played outside North America, but they rejected the opportunity after their star attraction, McGwire, opposed the plan.
When the Cardinals dropped out, the Cubs stepped in. Featuring their own slugger, Sammy Sosa, the Cubs opened the 2000 regular season against the Mets with a pair of games in Tokyo.
Major League Baseball officials approached the Cardinals in July 1999 with the invitation to begin the 2000 regular season in Japan.
McGwire was the reason the Cardinals were chosen. He and Sosa delighted audiences with their unprecedented home run totals before it later became known the two were cheating by using banned performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire was the home run champion in 1998 (70) and 1999 (65), edging Sosa both years, and baseball officials wanted to showcase him in Japan.
When McGwire learned of the proposal to play in Tokyo, he told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “You can’t give me a good reason why we should go to Japan. We have our own problems in major-league baseball without worrying about spreading it global. It’s a total waste of time. I can’t believe the Cardinals are agreeing to it. I can’t believe the Cardinals would even consider doing it.”
According to the New York Times, Major League Baseball was pursuing a global strategy to “export the game and its merchandise to more parts of the world in order to generate new revenue.”
Regular-season games in the majors were played exclusively in the United States until 1969 when the Expos joined the National League. The Cardinals and Expos played the first regular-season game outside the U.S. on April, 14, 1969, at Montreal. Boxscore
Thirty years later, in April 1999, a regular-season big-league game was played outside the U.S. or Canada for the first time when the Rockies and Padres held their opener in Monterrey, Mexico. Boxscore
The players’ union supported the staging of big-league games at international sites and approved the plan for the opener in Japan.
On July 21, 1999, Cardinals players had their first meeting to officially discuss the chance to open in Japan. Pitcher Kent Bottenfield, the Cardinals’ union representative, informed his teammates of the proposal. Each player would get a $15,000 bonus for going, the Post-Dispatch reported.
No vote was taken, but the meeting revealed a rift between McGwire and pitcher Rich Croushore.
According to Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, “Croushore said it would be fun to take his wife on a trip to Japan. McGwire reminded Croushore the purpose of the trip was baseball, a job, not a family vacation.”
The discussion got heated when Croushore accused McGwire of refusing his request to autograph a baseball for a disabled child, Miklasz revealed.
McGwire told his teammates he opposed the proposed trip because: (1) the traveling would cause fatigue and hamper play; (2) he wasn’t interested in being the main attraction, Miklasz reported.
“Nothing good can come from this trip,” McGwire said.
On July 25, 1999, a team vote was held and Cardinals players vetoed the Japan proposal, the Post-Dispatch reported. The next day, general manager Walt Jocketty told the commissioner’s office of the decision and Bottenfield informed the union.
“We didn’t have enough information,” Bottenfield said. “There were too many variables, too many unanswered questions. Guys didn’t want to leave themselves open to a bad situation.”
Major League Baseball scheduled the Cubs and Mets to open the 2000 regular season with games on March 29 and March 30 in Tokyo.
About two weeks before the games began, McGwire criticized the decision in an interview with Murray Chass of the New York Times. McGwire said baseball was “too international” and “this game belongs here” in the U.S.
“The Japanese have their own brand of baseball over there,” McGwire said. “Our game is too international as it is. It comes down to how much money can they make. It’s not, ‘What can we do for the good of the players?’ That’s what upsets me about it.
“This game belongs here,” McGwire said. “People come to America, they come here to watch our game.”
Cubs first baseman Mark Grace had a different outlook. “If we want to take the best game in the world all over the world, that’s fine with me,” Grace told the Chicago Tribune.
Said McGwire: “If the Mets or the Cubs miss the playoffs by one game because they couldn’t open their eyes up in Japan and play a game because they’re so tired, you think Major League Baseball is going to care?”
The Mets-Cubs season opener in Tokyo started at 4:07 a.m. Chicago time. Video
Chicago Tribune columnist Skip Bayless was among about 700 customers “packed like a Tokyo subway train” into Harry Caray’s restaurant in downtown Chicago at that hour to watch the game on television.
“What could be more hilariously surreal than Harry’s widow Dutchie greeting customers in the middle of the night wearing a kimono?” Bayless wrote.
After the final out, a patron turned to Bayless and said, “Kabusu katsu.”
“Huh?” replied Bayless.
“That’s ‘Cubs win’ in Japanese,” the guy said.
The trip “was not without its inconveniences, but it did not present a series of headaches,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
“It hasn’t been the monster everybody would think,” said Cubs manager Don Baylor.
Said Sosa: “I had a lot of fun here. There were great people and great fans.”
After the series in Japan, the Cubs returned to Chicago, rested and went to St. Louis for their third game, the Cardinals’ season opener, on April 3, 2000. The Cardinals won, 7-1, but McGwire, his steroids-riddled body breaking down, sat out because of an injury. Boxscore
The 2000 Cubs were a bad team, finishing 65-97, but the Mets, like the Cardinals, were the opposite. The Mets and Cardinals qualified for the postseason. In the National League Championship Series, the Mets prevailed over the Cardinals, winning the pennant and advancing to the World Series. McGwire, hobbled, was limited to three plate appearances and no hits in the series versus the Mets.
Fourteen years later, in March 2014, the Dodgers opened the regular season with a two-game series against the Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia. In the Dodgers’ dugout for both games was their hitting coach, Mark McGwire.