CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Most parents would be unhappy if their children missed school when healthy. In Zama American Middle School, 8th-grader Keiyl Sasano’s case on Monday, not only did he skip school, his parents took time away from work, too.

And with good reason. Not too often do Major League Baseball players visit Camp Zama, and when three Seattle Mariners, in Tokyo for this week’s MLB season-opening games with the Oakland A’s, flew by helicopter to Zama, the three decided they’d take a chance and see them at Yano Fitness Center.

“We’ve followed Ichiro’s whole career,” said Keiyl’s mother, Keily, sporting an Ichiro Suzuki No. 51 jersey. “I like the uniform. This is nice. Too bad this didn’t happen on a weekend.”

Keily, who has played baseball since he was much younger, comes from a sporting family. His mom graduated from Zama American High in 1981 and played for the Trojans’ girls 1979 Far East Volleyball Tournament champions. Keiyl’s older sister, Keily, also played for the Trojans and was an All-Far East player as a senior in 2007.

Keiyl stood in line with about 250 people from Zama to get autographs from first baseman Justin Smoak, infielder Dustin Ackley and left-handed reliever George Sherrill at Yano. “Pretty awesome,” Keiyl said.

“It’s a privilege we get for living overseas. We’d never see this in Hawaii,” said Keily, who hails from the 50th state. She works for Japan Engineering District; her husband, Glenn, is with Zama’s Asian studies detachment.

The players spent an hour taking questions from the audience and signing autographs and shaking hands at Yano, then drove to the post exchange for another hour of autographs and posing for cell-phone cameras.

Asked about Suzuki as a teammate, Smoak said: “It’s fun playing with him. Ichiro’s an icon everywhere.”

Already, the Mariners had played one game at Tokyo Dome on Monday against the Hanshin Tigers and were exposed to the difference in fan behavior, the cheers, chants and incessant Taiko drum beats. “They’re really loud,” Smoak said.

Considering Seattle has three Japanese players on their roster plus translators, the Mariners were plenty prepared for what to expect when they arrived in Japan, Smoak said.

“They were very helpful,” he said. “They were excited to come back here and happy for us to see and experience their culture.”

Among those in the autograph line was Matthew Martel, a 28-year-old native of Seattle decked out in a Felix Hernandez No. 34 jersey. He claims to have at home a photo taken of him as an 8-month-old in 1983 with former Mariners left-hander Mark Langston taken in 1983 at the old Kingdome.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Martel, a staff sergeant assigned to Zama. “Something I never thought I’d expect or experience here.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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