Hawaii: Steppingstone to Japan for Big Leagues?

The St. Louis Cardinals have gotten off to a very slow start this season and could probably benefit from more home cooking. Instead they'll make the longest regular-season trip (Miami to Honolulu) in history to play something billed as the "Paradise Series" and perhaps enjoy a luau along the way.

That's the fancy name given this rematch between the Cardinals and the San Diego Padres, who met in the first round of last year's National League playoffs. This time the teams have agreed to take Major League Baseball to Hawaii, which sits in baseball limbo between the West Coast and Asia.

Spearheading the effort is Padres president and CEO Larry Lucchino, one of the sport's most aggressive executives when it comes to enlarging baseball's geographic tent and an advocate of a baseball World Cup. Last year the Padres hosted the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico, the first time regular-season games were played in Mexico.

Lucchino has called Hawaii a possible "way station to Japan." A regular-season series in Japan is considered a possibility for next year. Even if it doesn't materialize, the club already has a working relationship with the Chiba Lotte Marines. San Diego tried to sign the Marines' star pitcher Hideki Irabu this spring, but he wanted to play with the Yankees and no deal could be worked out.

In going to Hawaii, Padres spokesman Glenn Geffner says this is "an opportunity to plant a flag in an area that hasn't had major-league baseball." The team wanted a first-rate attraction and feels the series should be just that. The Cardinals swept San Diego 3-games-to-0 in the playoffs last year, but the Padres return the National League's Most Valuable Player (Ken Caminiti) and batting champion (Tony Gwynn). As of midweek, Geffner said the Padres (the "home" team) had sold about 62,000 tickets for April 19 and 20, in the Aloha Stadium. A doubleheader has been scheduled for the 20th.

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