(The Mariners, represented from left to right, by Hector Noesi, Alex Liddi and manager Eric Wedge, and the A’s, represented by Tyson Ross, Tom Milone and Evan Scriber, conducted a clinic yesterday in Ishinomaki in northeastern Japan. The two teams open the 2012 season in Tokyo at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning, Seattle time. Photo by Associated Press).
I’m very curious to hear how people plan to observe Mariners’ Opening Day, since it happens to be starting at 3 a.m., Seattle time. I’ve got a simple yes-no poll above on whether or not you’re going to stay up (or attempt to stay up) to watch the game, but I’d love to to hear people’s stories about how and where they’re planning to commemorate the season opener. It’s a real dilemma — any true baseball fan absolutely loves Opening Day and what it represents. Yet we all have a life — jobs, school, family obligations…sleep — that could well conflict with watching a ball game in the wee hours of the morning.
But, man, it’s Opening Day!
It’s not a hard decision for me, since watching baseball — specifically, the Mariners — happens to be my job. I’m going to stay up, watch the game from my favorite comfy chair with my laptop at the ready, blogging and tweeting (hopefully) pithy observations to the hardy folks who happen to be on-line. (By the way, the Mariners’ broadcast team of Mike Blowers and Dave Sims will be right along with us in real time — they’re calling the game from Bellevue).
There’s no question that something is lost for fans of the two teams playing in Japan (here’s Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated with the counterpoint). It’s been that way since very first season-opening series was played in Tokyo, back in 2000. This is third set of games since then, and each time it has resulted, because of the time difference, in fans having to watch the games in the early morning hours — even more pronounced this year with the teams being in the Pacific Time Zone.
I happened to cover the first set of games in Tokyo in 2000, between the Mets and Cubs, and commissioner Bud Selig addressed that very question. Here’s what I wrote back then after talking to the commish:
Selig brushed off the main criticism of the Japan trip, which was that it deprived fans of the Mets and Cubs from seeing their teams in the opener. The games started at 5 a.m. in New York and 4 a.m. in Chicago.
“I want to remind everyone, the Cubs and Mets have 160 games to go,” Selig said. “They will have a home opener. All the other clubs will have a home opener. Whenever you do something different, there’s always that type of reaction.
“But five years ago, the great criticism of baseball was that it had no internationalization. It had no plan. It didn’t seem to be doing anything.”
That can’t be said of the Selig regime, which has presided over the advent of realignment, expanded playoffs, interleague play and now globalization.
“What we’re doing here is what anyone would do in the 21st century,” Selig said. “It’s a global economy. It’s not the world of the 1950s or 1960s. I was struck reading some of the critical columns about this trip that it was like they were writing in 1942, when we had isolationism. It’s not that world anymore.
“People say, `How dare you play in Japan? It’s a sacred American institution.’ I reject that as out of touch with the time we live in, and irrelevent. Someone told me that once we were in Japan, we’d wonder what took us so long. I think that’s exactly the way we feel.”
In general, I think the internationalization of baseball is a good thing, and I don’t see anything wrong with playing two games in Tokyo every four years, while rotating the teams involved (the A’s, who played the Rays in 2008, are the only Japan repeaters so far). But besides the obvious factor of playing the first games of the season at such an inconvenient time for the folks back home, there’s also a real question about what kind of toll the travel — nearly 5,000 miles one way for West Coast teams, even farther for East Coast ballclubs — takes on the teams involved.
It’s clearly not doing irrepairable damage. The 2000 Mets played in Japan and went on to win the NL pennant and advance to their only World Series in the last 25 years. The 2004 Yankees played in Japan, won 101 games and were a victory away from the World Series before collapsing in the ALCS while up three games to none against the Red Sox (I don’t think we can blame that on a Japan trip six months earlier). The 2008 Red Sox played in Japan and won 95 games, advancing to the ALCS.
But there have been a lot of slow starts associated with teams that played in Japan. Those pennant-bound Mets won their first game back (they had only three day’s rest after playing in Tokyo, unlike the current week off that subsequent teams, including the M’s and A’s, are getting), then lost five of six. Their opponents, the Cubs (on the way to a 97-loss season) lost their first three games back, and five of their first six. After a three-game winning streak, they then lost 9 of 11.
The powerhouse 2004 Yankees started 8-11 after returning from Japan. Their opponents, the Rays (en route to 91 losses), got off to a 10-28 start once back from Japan. The 2008 A’s, on the other hand, got off to a great start — 17-10, and were still over .500 as late as July 28 before losing 10 in a row, en route to an ultimate 75-86 finish.
This 2008 story by Carter Gaddis of the Tampa Tribune chronicles some of the slow starts by teams and individuals participating in the games in Japan.
We’ll have to wait and see how this trip affects the Mariners long term (though, when you get down to it, it’s impossible to know for sure what to blame on the rigors of travel, and what struggles might have occurred anyway). For now, I’m eager to see a game that counts, even if it’s at 3 a.m. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take a nap.