Mariners, Oakland could take time adjusting
Based on previous trips by major-league teams to Japan, the Mariners and Athletics can expect a slow start to the regular season.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Anyone who has made the flight to — and from — Japan knows the toll it can take on the body.
When that body has to then play professional baseball, the residual effect of jet lag becomes a legitimate cause of concern. Before the Mariners and Athletics, six teams had opened the season in Tokyo, and it appears there was at least some price to pay for traveling nearly 10,000 miles round-trip (even farther for East Coast ballclubs).
It's clearly not doing irreparable damage, mind you. The 2000 Mets played in Japan and went on to win the National League 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, both by teams and individuals. Those pennant-bound Mets won their first game back (they had to get right back into games that count 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 nine 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. They also became the first team in MLB history to fall as many as 18 games under .500 and return to .500 in the same season. 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 a 75-86 finish.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, in a column touting the virtues of the trip, did the math and discovered that the six previous teams in Japan played losing baseball in their first 10 games back in North America (29-31) compared to .518 afterward.
Verducci wrote, "They will pay for their trip with jet lag, exhaustion and disruption of the usual rhythms of baseball. ... What they gain for themselves, especially in the cultural realm, and for the sport far outweigh a few weeks of inconvenience."
That's certainly the stance of commissioner Bud Selig, who told me in 2000, reacting to criticism of the trip, "What we're doing here is what anyone would do in the 21st century. 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 irrelevant. 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."
Major League Baseball learned from the Mets and Cubs that teams couldn't just go right back into their regular schedule. So subsequent teams have returned from Japan and eased back in with exhibition games, which seems weird but beats the alternative. Another change since 2000 is that the traveling teams now resume their season against each other, somewhat mitigating the disadvantage of the arduous travel.
But the effects could linger. Joe Girardi, catcher for the Cubs team that opened in Japan in 2000, told The New York Times that "a lot of us woke up at 3:30 in the morning for two weeks after we got back."
The A's elected to go home, rather than back to Arizona. They played an exhibition game in Sacramento against their Class AAA affiliate on Saturday night, and will face their rival Giants on Monday through Wednesday before resuming the season against Seattle on Friday at the Oakland Coliseum.
The A's also opened spring training a week after the Mariners, who opted for the earlier start to prepare for the earlier opening day. And the Mariners still have more travel after leaving Oakland. They head to Texas for four games with the Rangers before finally returning home April 13 — to face Oakland.
Of course, it's impossible to calculate definitively the effects of all that travel. Some players, and teams, struggle early even without going to Japan. The Rays were 1-8 out of the gate last year and the Red Sox were 2-10; Tampa Bay made the postseason, and it took an epic collapse to keep Boston out.
As Terry Francona, then Red Sox manager, said in 2008, "We can talk about this until we're blue in the face. Every time we walk somebody or we make an error, somebody asks did the Japan trip (hurt)? Our job is to play good baseball. When we play good baseball, it's OK."
Yankees manager Joe Torre had the same sentiment in 2004: "If you get caught up in it, you'll talk yourself into it. If there's jet lag, there's jet lag. You just have to deal with it."
The Mariners are already a team with obstacles to overcome, and the travel to Japan — as rewarding an experience as they say it was — may well be another.
Bouton's "Ball Four" redux as an e-book
"Ball Four" is back, and for those of us who were bowled over by this book as a kid and still revere it as an adult, that's always cause to celebrate.
Jim Bouton's classic diary of the 1969 season — much of it centered on his time with the expansion Seattle Pilots — is being rereleased by Rosetta as an e-book, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bouton's first career win with the New York Yankees. It will be a Kindle exclusive, and it will be the same hilarious, ribald tale that let the world know that — gasp — ballplayers weren't choir boys.
"I've been getting so much email from fans saying that is the 21st century, we'd like to have this as an e-book," Bouton said in a phone interview.
The book will also be released in audible form via audible.com, with Bouton himself — now 73 — doing the reading. As one who has heard Bouton read from the book, I can vouch that it was a wise choice to have him do it rather than an actor.
"An actor, as much as they have a trained voice, usually a great voice, they weren't there," Bouton said. "I'm not sure an actor could capture that environment."
The process of reliving "Ball Four" is getting more poignant for Bouton with the passing of many key characters in the book. Pilots teammate Don Mincher died on March 4 — the 11th player from the '69 Pilots to die, in addition to manager Joe Schultz.
"It's heartbreaking," Bouton said. "Probably more heartbreaking for me than anyone else. I've been living with these guys for so many years. I know them so intimately now. I remember them not so much as players but as human beings. I've answered so many questions and so many emails, done so many talks, my Seattle Pilot teammates are like members of my family. I love every one of them."
And now they're going to live again in a 21st century format.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.