Are Opening MLB Series Abroad a Good Thing for Teams, Baseball?

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Are Opening MLB Series Abroad a Good Thing for Teams, Baseball?
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The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks are kicking off the 2014 MLB season this weekend in Sydney, Australia. It's the seventh time MLB has opened a season outside its usual boundaries and the fifth time the league has opened a season way outside its usual boundaries.

And here's us to acknowledge two realities.

One: The farther away from North America games are played, the bigger the inconvenience for many.

And, two: Deal with it. MLB commissioner Bud Selig will argue that these excursions are worth it, and he'd have a leg to stand on.

More than one, actually.

But first, here's some background on the six previous season openers that happened abroad:

Previous Abroad Season Openers
Year Matchup Location Games
1999 Colorado Rockies vs. San Diego Padres Monterrey, Mexico 1
2000 New York Mets vs. Chicago Cubs Tokyo, Japan 2
2001 Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays San Juan, Puerto Rico 1
2004 New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays Tokyo, Japan 2
2008 Boston Red Sox vs. Oakland A's Tokyo, Japan 2
2012 Oakland A's vs. Seattle Mariners Tokyo, Japan 2

MLB.com

The games played in Mexico and Puerto Rico were no big deal. Neither destination required an extreme travel itinerary, and neither took place in an exotic time zone. North American fans could easily tune in.

But then, these aren't the games we think about. We think about the openers in Japan, and not fondly so, due to how it feels like they rob North American fans of a proper opening to a new season.

When a season opens in a place as far away as Japan, it starts in the wee hours of the morning on the East Coast and in the middle of the night on the West Coast. That gives many MLB fans two choices:

  1. They can destroy their sleeping schedules for the sake of watching the games live. Or...
  2. They can program their DVRs and stay the hell off the Internet.

Hence the grumbling that could be heard in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. It got particularly bad in 2012, as MLB didn't seem very interested in selling the A's vs. Mariners opener to North American audiences. On top of that, the game was blacked out in relevant areas.

The Australia series isn't shaping up to be that much of a drag, but it's not going to make things any easier than the Japan series did. The second game starts at 10 p.m. on the East Coast on Saturday night, with the first game starting at 4 a.m. ET early Saturday morning.

So if Dodgers and Diamondbacks fans are going to watch that one live, here's some two-word advice: caffeine, yo.

Of course, it's not just North American fans who are inconvenienced. Let's not forget about the people who actually have to go on these trips.

It's a nearly 20-hour flight to Japan. Nick Piecoro of USA Today reports the flight to Australia for the Dodgers and D-Backs was 14-and-a-half hours. Soul-sucking flights like these make people tired and grouchy. Ballplayers are no different.

After Mike Mussina and the Yankees were trounced in the 2004 opener, the right-hander told The New York Times"I don't think any of us feel that great. It's only been a couple of days, and I don't think any of us are sleeping the way we'd like to. But that's what they asked us to do, so we try to do it."

Going there is tough, but coming back is even tougher. Like the teams that went to Japan in 2004, 2008 and 2012, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will have roughly a week to recover. But it will be a hard week, as they'll have to get over some serious jet lag while also resuming their exhibition schedules.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com about what he remembers from his time as a Yankees coach in 2004:

That was rough. We came back with four Spring Training games and that was miserable and we started bad. Those are the things I worry about. The bell rings, those two games count, then you come back and say [three exhibition games] don't matter. I worry about bad habits.

Which leads us to maybe the most honest thing said by anyone ever.

"I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it," Dodgers starter Zack Greinke told ESPN Los Angeles. "There just isn't any excitement to it. I can't think of one reason to be excited for it."

But this is where we enter the "Oh, quit your bellyaching!" portion of our program.

Maybe you're assuming there's a greater injury risk with these openers abroad, especially in light of Greinke's calf injury (which, somewhat ironically, nixed him from making the trip) and D-Backs ace Patrick Corbin's unfortunate elbow injury.

But this is a stretch. Greinke battled an injury last spring too, and it makes more sense to blame Corbin's injury on the fact that he threw more (and threw harder) in 2013 than he ever had.

And while MLB's injury records only go back so far, you can dig into the transactions pages on each team's site and find that the clubs that made the last three trips to Japan didn't have to make frequent use of the disabled list in March or April. 

Knowing that, it's no surprise that these trips have yet to cause any irreparable harm.

First, observe the aftermath of the six abroad season openers:

Opening Series Aftermath Breakdown
Location Next 10 Games April After April Final
Japan 38-42 (.475) 93-94 (.497) 576-531 (.520) 669-625 (.517)
Elsewhere 21-19 (.525) 45-46 (.495) 254-303 (.456) 299-349 (.461)

Baseball-Reference.com

There is something to the notion that the Japan openers have led to hangovers, as the Japan teams didn't do so hot in their first 10 games after the trip or in April, in general.

But the Japan hangovers haven't lasted. That post-April record looks good, and each of the four Japan openers has produced a postseason team: the 2000 Mets, 2004 Yankees, 2008 Red Sox and 2012 A's.

Behold the beauty of a 162-game season. This isn't the same thing as the NFL having two teams play one of 16 games in London, thereby risking the sabotage of one or both teams' seasons. There's enough time and enough games in the MLB season for teams to recover.

Now, it is true that the teams that went to Mexico and Puerto Rico didn't fare so well throughout the rest of the season. But that's related to how three of those teams weren't so great in the first place.

The other one is the only team that's ever opened abroad and has gone on to be significantly worse than it was the previous season:

Before and After Opening Abroad Season-Opener
Year Team Location Previous Year Record Final Record
1999 Rockies Mexico 77-85 72-90
1999 Padres Mexico 98-64 74-88
2000 Mets Japan 97-66 94-68
2000 Cubs Japan 67-95 65-97
2001 Rangers Puerto Rico 71-91 73-89
2001 Blue Jays Puerto Rico 83-79 80-82
2004 Yankees Japan 101-61 101-61
2004 Devil Rays Japan 63-99 70-91
2008 Red Sox Japan 96-66 95-67
2008 A's Japan 76-86 75-86
2012 Mariners Japan 67-95 75-87
2012 A's Japan 74-88 94-68

Baseball-Reference.com

Maybe the Mexico opener had something to do with San Diego's struggles in 1999. Either that, or it was a result of them losing Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Greg Vaughn over the winter.

None of this is to suggest that opening the season abroad is an advantage for teams. But lest anyone think that these season openers are a kiss of death, sorry, they haven't proven to be anything of the sort.

So rather than focus on a negative that's not there, how about we focus on the positives instead? 

Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

For starters, there's nothing wrong with easy sellouts. If the figures on Baseball-Reference.com are accurate, the 10 games played abroad have averaged over 44,000 fans. For perspective, the average attendance at an MLB game last year was about 30,000.

This was mainly thanks to the seating capacity of the Tokyo Dome. Each time MLB went there, it was giving the people what they wanted. They're crazy about baseball in Japan, and they like Major League Baseball at least as much as Nippon Professional Baseball.

That's been apparent for a while now. When the Yankees went to Japan in 2004, Colin Joyce of the Los Angeles Times referenced how Japanese youths were gravitating more toward MLB than to NPB. When the Red Sox and A's went in 2008, Robert Whiting wrote in The New York Times about how much the popularity of NPB games had fallen off since MLB telecasts had become a morning staple in Japan.

Sure, what this tells us is that MLB hasn't necessarily needed to hold four season openers in Japan. If the fans are already that crazy for MLB's product, why bother?

Two reasons.

One has to do with talent. Japanese players want to come to the states for the money, but also because they want to prove themselves. Japanese fans tend to be supportive in this regard, as many want to see Japan's best with the rest of the best.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
We all want to see more Masahiro Tanakas in MLB, right?

If you're MLB, you want this to continue. Essentially showing that the interest is mutual is a good way to go about it. The longer MLB has Japan convinced that it's worthy of the country's best talent, the longer MLB will be able to enjoy that talent.

The second reason is much simpler. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated noted in 2012, 70 percent of MLB's international revenues come from the Japan market. Keep that market happy, and you keep the revenue flowing.

Places like Mexico, Puerto Rico and now Australia are obviously different. The trips to the first two places weren't as much about the appeasement of a big baseball market. They were more about the globalization of baseball and MLB's brand. 

That's what the trip to Australia is about, too, but it's easily the biggest leap of faith that MLB has taken with these season openers. Whereas Mexico, Puerto Rico and certainly Japan already had firm baseball roots, Australia doesn't yet.

The country is, however, ready for them.

As ESPN.com's Jim Caple learned from D-Backs pitcher—and Australia native—Ryan Rowland-Smith, Australia's knowledge of baseball now extends beyond what could be gleaned from an old episode of The Simpsons. Tyler Maas of Sports on Earth tackled the same subject.

The message of both articles is the same: Baseball is still a niche sport in Australia, but its popularity is growing. By giving the country an up-close look at the real deal, MLB could accelerate that growth.

If it does, there will be economic gains for MLB. Japan is the big international market, but the more international markets MLB can draw from, the better. It does have a going-nowhere-but-up revenue stream to maintain, you know.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The economic interests will also be there if and when MLB ever decides to take its act to other places—China, Brazil, Germany, Italy and the UK come to mind. But so will another interest at play with the Australia series: cultivating a new talent pool. 

The league is already more international than ever, as The Associated Press reported last year that the four highest percentages of foreign-born players on Opening Day rosters have all occurred since 2005.

That alone tells us that having so many foreign talent pools to draw from has made a difference. It follows that more talent pools will make an even bigger difference.

And both teams and fans should fully support the cultivation of these talent pools. The more there are, the more places teams have to look for talent. And the more talent teams acquire, the better the product.

Then there's Selig's ultimate fantasy of baseball becoming a true global phenomenon. Having MLB teams on different continents is and likely always will be impractical, but Selig's real dream may not be.

Selig said last spring, via the Sporting News:

Internationalization has a chance to take this sport to heights we can’t imagine today. The thought of having a real World Series, and the interest in the world, is breathtaking to me. It has economic potential that is huge, but it has sociological potential that is great.

Imagine the North American champions being thrown into a Final Four with the South American champions, the European Champions and the Pacific Champions. The World Series is nice, but that's a World Series I'd like to see.

You don't have to like the idea of MLB opening a new season in places like Japan and Australia. Honestly, I'm not crazy about it. If for no other reason than the time difference, it just doesn't feel right.

However, the next season that gets ruined by a season opener abroad will be the first. These series aren't doing any real harm, and they present tangible benefits to collect on and potential benefits to strive for.

You don't have to like it. But you should get it, and you should approve of it.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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