March 30, 2004
Opening (Yawn) Day, 2004
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Four years ago, when the Mets and Cubs became the first teams to open the season with a short series in Tokyo, I went to bed early, set my alarm for 2 a.m. PST, jumped out of bed right around that time, watched the game and fired off a diary of the experience for posting that morning. It was a fun exercise, especially since it was a pretty good game and I had at least a few hours' sleep.
So with my...er, the Yankees opening their 2004 season in Japan, I figured this would be another opportunity to get a fun column out of it. Being on the East Coast now, though, and with no real sleep pattern to speak of, I elected to stay up all night to do so.
I guess that was my first bad decision. My second was asking Grady Little to be my insurance policy in case I dozed off. As you'd expect, Little eventually got me, but just a few minutes too late. Figures.
So I missed the first half-inning, the one in which Hideki Matsui thrilled the crowd with a double, and Jason Giambi opened his season with a two-run home run. When I turned on the game, I was terribly confused; Mike Mussina was on the mound wearing pinstripes, but the ESPN2 graphic told me it was 2-0 Yankees in the first frame. But...how...could...Mussina...be...
Finally, through the fog came enlightenment. I recalled that despite being the road team, the Yankees were wearing their famous pinstripes as a means of enhancing the experience for the Japanese fans. While disconcerting for tired Americans trying to make sense of dawn baseball, I happen to think this was a pretty good call by MLB, since the Yankee pinstripes are iconic in a way that other uniforms simply aren't.
Now, for the even-more-embarrassing part: I didn't make it through the game. This was a Yankees/Devil Rays game. It was in Japan, it was the season opener, it was a special start time, but...it was the Yankees and Devil Rays. Using it to try and stay awake almost certainly violates the warranty.
My last clear memories are of Mussina being squeezed in the fourth inning, leading to two Devil Rays runs on a Toby Hall single. Those runs were the only ones of the 11 in the game that I saw, actually, although I did manage to catch a few pitches in the top of the ninth.
So today, I'm the hanging-head-in-shame columnist. I only saw about four innings of the season opener, which is the fewest I've caught in perhaps a decade. Still, I took some notes during the parts I watched:
- Aubrey Huff was the DH. My initial reaction was disappointment, but where else is he going to play? The D-Rays have Carl Crawford and Jose Cruz Jr. on the outfield corners, and defense is a big part of both players' value. Lou Piniella has pretty much established that he's not going to use Huff as a third baseman, and while Huff fits at first base, Tino Martinez's contract and veteran leadership currently occupy that spot.
Huff's too young to be a full-time DH, but unless and until the romance with Tino ends, that's what he'll be.
- With Crawford, Cruz and Rocco Baldelli, the D-Rays have put together an awesome defensive outfield.
- As they did in 2000, the two teams wore ads on their helmets. While this is aesthetically annoying, is it really a problem? The ads aren't actually obtrusive--certainly less so than the superimposed ones on the backstop--and they're a source of extra revenue. If NASCAR can be the media-anointed "sport" of the future with its equipment decked out in more ads than a CBS basketball telecast, surely baseball teams can add a logo to a helmet without threatening the fabric of society?
- In the second, we were treated to this from, I believe, Karl Ravech: "Enrique Wilson, first-pitch swinging." Anybody want to set a line on this versus, "past a diving Jeter"?
- Speaking of the broadcast team, they weren't actually there, right? I didn't see any shots of them, and the audio had the feel of a studio set-up. ESPN has a habit of doing this, using the technique a lot during the last World Cup. Like the helmet ads, it doesn't detract much from the broadcast. The 24-year-old NBC experiment of no broadcasters seems due for a revival, though.
- Despite the ugly performance this morning--and man, he really did get squeezed in the lower half of the zone--Mike Mussina is my Cy Young pick, for something like the 23rd straight season. I can see him getting ridiculous levels of run support, and predict a 24-5, 2.98 season that gives him the hardware even though he's only one of the top three pitchers in the league, not the best.
I have to look at his Hall of Fame case soon, too. He gets very little mention in that discussion, but he's coming up hard on the outside.
- It was a nice gesture by Joe Torre to bat Matsui #2 in Godzilla's return home. It's not clear whether Torre will continue to do this when the Yankees return to this hemisphere. For a team with an eleventeen bajillion dollar payroll, there sure are a lack of good leadoff options. Kenny Lofton, while nominally that guy, is a shell of the player he was at his peak, and a definite problem against left-handers.
Batting Matsui second would work if the player he was in Japan shows up this year, the one who walked a lot and hit the ball in the air. Groundzilla, the 2003 version of Matsui, would be an unmitigated disaster in the #2 slot, a kinder, gentler Jim Rice.
I hope all of you got to see more of the game than I did. Regardless, here's the important thing: THE SEASON HAS STARTED. Baseball's back, and that is one of the few absolute goods I can think of. Six months of love, folks. I'm a happy boy today.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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