Sosa souvenir for lucky fan

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The Independent Online

Generally, it's considered proper etiquette for fans at Japanese baseball games to give back foul balls. Lucky for Ko Hayasaka, the usual rules didn't apply at Wednesday's season opener between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets.

"Think of the chances," the 18-year-old said after pulling in the catch of the day - a first-inning foul by the game's biggest attraction, Sammy Sosa.

"What a souvenir!"

Hayasaka's seat in the second balcony proved to be the best in the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome when Sosa popped up the foul in his first at-bat. Sosa ended up hitting a line-drive that set up a double play.

"Too bad it was a foul," Hayasaka said. "I would have preferred a home run ball, but I'll keep it."

Wednesday's game was played before a sell-out crowd and judging from the roars of awe each time he picked up his bat - and anger the two times he was walked - Sosa was the man the Japanese fans were there to see. He didn't hit any home runs, but had a double and a single.

"All I can say about Sosa is that he is terrific," Hayasaka said. "He's great."

Hayasaka, who came to see the game with his father, said he plans to put the ball on his desk to help him study. He was a little worried about that, however.

College entrance exams in Japan are notoriously difficult, and Hayasaka said he learned this month that he failed his. So, like many other Japanese his age, he will be spending most of the year ahead preparing to try again.

"I hope I didn't use up all my luck," he said.

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DEJA VU

Playing baseball in Japan is nothing new for Bobby Valentine and many of the Mets.

Valentine was manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995, leading that team to a second-place finish in its division, the Marines' best showing in 20 years.

Tom Robson, the Mets hitting coach, was on Valentine's staff with the Marines, and stayed with them in 1996 as well.

Mets' coach Cookie Rojas and players Mike Piazza, Rickey Henderson, Robin Ventura, John Franco and Rey Ordonez have all played on all star teams that toured Japan.

Pat Mahomes pitched for the Yokohama Baystars in 1997-98.

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THE REAL DIRT

Rumor had it that American clay was going to be flown in to firm up the pitcher's mound at the Tokyo Dome, but the season began on regular old dirt.

Pitchers complained the mound was softer and required a bit of getting used to during the two exhibition games here against Japanese teams.

"It's a different dirt than we expect," said Cubs manager Don Baylor.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine said it was just another one of those little things you have to get used to.

"My guys don't complain," he said. "During the season there are many conditions that players must play under. The players must learn to adjust, and I think that all the players that play tonight will."

Mets pitcher Mike Hampton agreed.

"It was something I wasn't really used to," he said. "But when it comes down to it, I was the problem."

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A REAL DOLL

Along with fighting off fiesty fans and overly friendly children, mascot Mr. Met - Matt Golden, 24, from Stony Brooke, NY - found out Wednesday he has another chore on his first road trip.

He has to hand out dolls.

In keeping with Japanese baseball custom, Mr. Met was to trot up to home plate after each home run and give the lucky slugger a foot-high stuffed dog.

"It wasn't in the job description, me presenting these dolls," Golden laughed. "I just hope the Mets know what I'm doing out there, because I don't think they've been briefed on this."

Golden got his first chance in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Mike Piazza hit a home run into the right stands. Piazza tried to throw the doll to the fans, but needed two throws to get it over the chain-link fence behind the dugout.

To commemorate the game, one of the dolls will go to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

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AMBASSADORS OF BALL

Five Hall of Famers in town for Wednesday's opener were the toasts of an embassy reception hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley.

"No, I never thought I would see this day," said Tommy Lasorda. "Imagine, opening day in Japan."

Lasorda was joined by Hank Aaron - who also threw out the opening ball for Wednesday's game - Lou Brock, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams.

Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, along with Commissioner Bud Selig, also attended the reception.

"At home, opening day is completely different than it was today," said Cubs manager Baylor. Baylor added that having the Hall of Fame five made it "very special."

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