Beyond Golf — 11 February 2012 by Jim Street
Act IV for MLB opener in Japan

If history continues on the same path, either the Seattle Mariners or Oakland Athletics will contend for a playoff berth in 2012, but don’t expect the other two teams in the American League West to begin shaking in their boots anytime soon.

When the Mariners and Athletics open the regular season on March 26 with the first of two games at the Tokyo Dome, it will mark the fourth time in Major League history that regular-season games have been played in the Far East.

And in each of the three previous series, one of the two teams went on to have a terrific campaign while the other team finished with a losing record.

Let’s take a look back:

*In 2000, the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs split a two-game series, the Cubbies winning the opener, 5-3, and the Mets retaliating with a 5-1 win in 11 innings. The Mets returned to the U.S. and won 93 more games, finishing with a 94-68 record, one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the AL East. The Cubs went the other direction, going 65-97, finishing last in the AL Central, 30 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

*In 2004, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays (Devil Rays back then) launched the regular season at the Tokyo Dome and also split the two-game series. The Rays won the opener, 8-3, and the Yankees came back with a 12-1 victory in the second game. The Bronx Bombers ended the campaign with a 101-61 record, winning the AL East, while the Rays went 70-91, finishing next-to-last in the AL East, 30 ½ games behind the Yanks.

*In 2008, the Boston Red Sox and Athletics split a two-game series in Japan. The Sox won the opener, 6-5 in 10 innings, and Oakland had a payback 5-1 win the following night. In keeping with the previous opening-series in Tokyo, the Red Sox posted a 95-67 regular-season record, finishing two games behind the Rays in the AL East while the Athletics went 75-86 and finished third in the AL West.

Although playing regular-season games is good for helping the sport become global, there are critics who believe that travelling so far makes it difficult on the players and it takes them at least a couple of weeks to recover – thus causing teams to get off to slow starts.

There is evidence to support their case.

For example, the Yankees had a 12-11 record at the end of April in ’04 before getting warmed up. The Mets were 16-10 heading into May of 2000. And the Red Sox had a 17-12 record at the end of April following their trek to Japan in ’08, the same record as the Athletics.

For whatever reason (bad teams?) the Cubs were 10-17 heading into May in 2000 and the Rays were 7-14 four years later.

And now we come to 2012.

The chances of the Mariners or Athletics challenging for the AL West title seems to be slim and none. The reigning AL champion Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels are head-and-shoulders above the M’s and A’s, (you read it here first) will represent the division in the expanded playoffs and meet again in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series.

That being said, the Mariners will be first in something this season.

They are the first MLB team to begin spring training. Pitchers, catchers, injured players and reporters reported to camp in Peoria, AZ on Feb. 11. The Athletics, for some unknown reason, report a week later. Perhaps it has something to do with “Moneyball” or just plain money.

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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