History says Australia series will yield playoff berth
PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks’ trip to Australia could be much more than a photo op on Bondi Beach or a chance to sample a pint of James Boag’s lager, Kevin Towers’ favorite Tasmanian brew (grade on the scouting scale: 80).
It could be the start of a special year. History suggests that the 17,000-mile road trip to begin the season will end in a playoff appearance for either the D-backs or the Dodgers. History insists, actually.
Major League Baseball has sponsored four previous season-opening trips to this side of the international date line starting in 2000, all played in Japan. Each time, one of the two teams finished the year in postseason. The other was under .500.
So the Diamondbacks and Dodgers have that going for them as they prepare for a two-game set at the Sydney Cricket Ground on March 22-23.
"My hope is we are 2-0 when we come back and have a week to enjoy sitting on top of the division," said Towers, the D-backs general manager. "I’m kind of glad it’s the Dodgers. You get to see where you stack up against the team that everybody is picking. You’re just doing it Down Under instead of here."
The first two may not matter as much as the journey itself. It is impossible to know what would have happened to the Mets, the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Athletics if each had not opened with a two-game series in Japan. Maybe they were good enough to trample the field as it was. But we know what happened when they did. The Mets played in the 2000 World Series, the 2004 Yankees and the 2008 Red Sox made the American League Championship Series and the 2012 A’s made the AL Division Series. They averaged 96 victories.
Bring it on.
"I loved it," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who had 24 home runs and drove in 84 runs on the 2000 Mets team that made the playoffs as a wild card and lost to the Yankees in the Subway Series.
"I would volunteer us to go anywhere. I think it is the quickest way you can get your team to be a unit. It’s a great team experience. You are going off to a foreign place. Everyone is together. I look at it that Kirk (D-backs manager Gibson) and Donny (Dodgers manager Mattingly) are lucky that they get to have something team-building that they can do. You can’t replicate it any other way. I’m jealous."
The Mets played the Cubs in the Tokyo Dome on March 29-30, 2000, and the teams had only three days to recuperate from the long flight. Major League Baseball has since lengthened the lag time. While that trip was memorable, the short turnaround time was not enough, then-Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said.
"The accommodations were as red carpet as you could be, so that part of it was unforgettable," Grace said. "It was awesome, it really was. But I think certainly the Mets and Cubs were at a disadvantage the first week to 10 days of the season because of the way it was scheduled.
"Next thing you know, you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 1 o’clock in the morning and then you are ready to go to sleep at 11 in the morning. It takes a few days to get your legs under you. It was cool to open up the millennium like that. It was special. It was good for baseball. I look back on it with no regrets.
"But we got our asses kicked. We were zombie-fied."
After splitting the two games with the Mets in Japan, the Cubs, 65-97 that year despite Sammy Sosa’s 50 homers, lost the first three games on North American soil to the rival Cardinals. St. Louis outscored Chicago 30-8 in that series, winning 7-1, 10-4 and 13-3.
The 2004 Yankees had the best season, going 101-61 after opening the 2004 season with a two-game split against the Rays, again in the Tokyo Dome. The Yankees led the AL East for 141 days, although maybe for them the season was just a tad too long. That New York team became the first in major-league history to lose a three-games-to-none lead in the playoffs when Boston rallied to win the ALCS — drawing inspiration from Curt Schilling and his bloody sock — and then the World Series.
Four years later, the Red Sox made the playoffs as a wild card after opening with a split against the A’s in the Tokyo Dome — Boston lost to Tampa Bay in the ALCS. The 2008 trip got off to a stressful start after players voted not to travel if the coaches, training staff and clubhouse attendants did not get paid. Players received a $40,000 stipend and became upset with they learned the coaches would not before the situation was rectified.
Next thing you know, you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 1 o’clock in the morning and then you are ready to go to sleep at 11 in the morning. It takes a few days to get your legs under you. … We were zombie-fied.”
Mark Grace, member of 2000 Cubs, on readjusting to normal schedule after international trip
"To be blunt, I wouldn’t have minded going to play exhibition games," said then Red Sox manager and current Indians manager Terry Francona, who in 2008 was coming off his second World Series victory in four seasons with the Red Sox.
"When we played the exhibition games, I kind of enjoyed it. When it became real, I didn’t like it because you are in a whole different atmosphere. Everybody is having a party. We went to the embassy one day. I didn’t want to go to the embassy; I wanted to be at the ballpark. As far as spring training goes, it was a disaster. That was a tough trip. It was a grind. Then you have to figure out your pitching.
"As a manager, all you care about is winning. It’s good for baseball, I get that, but it doesn’t help you win. Guys were sick. Guys were tired. It was a nightmare logistically. I just would prefer it be other teams."
Like Oakland. The A’s played in Japan again in 2012, and general manager Billy Beane is a big fan.
"We wanted to go to Australia, too. We said any time you want to send a team internationally, we’ll raise our hand," Beane said. "The baseball was phenomenal, the cultural experience. Players will have a perspective. I can just tell you, as an executive, we loved it. We had no problem getting ready (for the regular season). You have plenty of time to get your body clock back."
There was one drawback.
"We had to face Felix (Hernandez, the Mariners’ ace) two of the first four games because you have a gap (between games to return back to the States). "That was the worst part," Beane said.
Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon McCarthy also started two of the first four games for the Athletics that year, one against Hernandez, and pitched well, giving up three earned runs in 12 innings. McCarthy’s only concern was the sudden switch from real games overseas to exhibition games back in Arizona to real games again.
"It’s the coming back and playing pretend games for another week," McCarthy said. "It killed all the adrenaline you have. It kills the emotion of having started the season. It’s easily the worst part of the whole thing. The rest of it is good."
The historical reward, at least for one team, is not bad, either.