Before this column kicks off, I want to thank everyone for their feedback
on Friday’s column, in which I stated Tim Raines was a clear Hall of
Famer. The response was overwhelming, and I have been unable to return all
the mail. What I can do is ask all of you to keep an eye out for an
in-depth look at the issue from Rany Jazayerli. We’ll have his take on
Raines’ chance at immortality Friday.

With that out of the way, let me say, "Good morning." It’s about
1:50 a.m. PST Wednesday, and the 2000 baseball season is about to begin as
the Mets and Cubs hook up in Tokyo. I have to figure this is what fans of
English soccer who are stuck in the U.S. go through all the time, so I
guess it’s whiny to complain too much. Still, in nearly 30 years of being a
sports fan, this is by far the strangest start time I’ve cared to experience.

What follows is a record of this unique morning.

1:45 a.m.: Alarm goes off.

1:50 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. I get up slowly as my beautiful and
understanding wife says something I can’t quite hear. Since I don’t catch
"lawyer" or "kill," I kiss her softly and let it go.

2:06 a.m.: First pitch from Mike Hampton is a fastball taken
by Eric Young for a strike. Normally, the first pitch of the season
leaves me with the warm fuzzies. They seem to be missing this morning,
oddly enough.

2:09 a.m.: After walking, Young steals second. There were only eight
steals against Hampton in all of 1999. This one appears to have been on
him, as Mike Piazza‘s throw is strong, if a hair high.

2:12 a.m.: First hit and first run, as Damon Buford singles
Young home.

2:16 a.m.: Henry Rodriguez flies to center to end the first
inning. The Tokyo Dome outfield has no warning track as we know it, just a
white line about six feet from the fence. Uh-huh. So outfielders are
supposed to feel the paint under their feet and pull up? This seems
pointless–either have a warning track or don’t have one.

2:21 a.m.: Both teams appear to have ads for a convenience store
stuck on their helmets. While I understand teams’ desire to add revenue
wherever possible, this is mildly distracting, and I hope it doesn’t catch
on. Not to mention it’s yet another revenue stream that will be more
available to some teams than others. Here’s hoping it’s just something in
place for these two games.

2:29 a.m.: Happiness is Joe Girardi out of pinstripes.

2:35 a.m.: At least three players have slipped coming out of the
batter’s box, the latest being Robin Ventura. The Tokyo Dome is a
facility that is used to hosting baseball, so this is somewhat surprising.

Given the ruckus is some quarters about these games, the last thing
baseball needs is an injury to someone that can be blamed on substandard
conditions. Between the lack of a warning track and the condition of the
hitting area, there seems to be some risk here.

2:51 a.m.: Mike Hampton is certainly entertaining. In the
first inning, he escaped a first-and-second, none-out situation by getting
a double-play ball. In the second, he got another DP after an
inning-opening walk. In the third, he walked the bases loaded before
getting Henry Rodriguez to pop out.

Met fans were very vocal in response to some off-season material here that
claimed Hampton wouldn’t be that much better than Octavio Dotel in
2000, and they made some cogent points. I still believe, however, that
Hampton’s 1999 was the top of his range, and that a pitcher with his walk
and strikeout rates will have a hard time being more than a
slightly-above-average pitcher, even with all the other things Hampton does

3:15 a.m.: More Hampton magic. After loading the bases with no one
out, he strikes out Jon Lieber looking and gets Young to ground into
a 1-2-3 double play, the Mets’ third turn of the game. Hampton leaps to his
left to start the double play, showing nice reactions.

3:19 a.m.: The two starters in this game are about as opposed as you
can get for pitchers of comparable quality. Lieber is a fast worker, a
flyball pitcher who throws strikes. Hampton, as we’ve seen, is an extreme
groundball pitcher who throws balls. Lots of ’em. Lieber has never had high
win totals, and as such, has been underrated for much of his career.
Pitching in Wrigley Field with a so-so defense behind him isn’t the best
scenario for him, yet I think this will be the year he steps up, posting an
ERA in the mid-3.00s and becoming one of the better starters in the league.

Trading Brant Brown to the Pirates for Lieber and signing the
right-hander to a three-year, $15 million contract rank as the Cubs’ best
moves in the last few years.

3:43 a.m.: I wonder what the record is for most walks without
inspiring a trip to the mound. Hampton has just walked his eighth hitter
(in 4 1/3 innings), and we’ve yet to see Dave Wallace or Bobby Valentine
come talk to him.

3:44 a.m.: Eight walks plus a 2-and-0 count finally got Hampton some
face time with Wallace.

3:47 a.m.: After walking Shane Andrews to force in a run,
Hampton gets his fourth double play of the game, this one an easy 5-4-3 to
get out of the inning.

Look, this is fun to watch, sort of, but just so we’re clear: a good
offensive team has about seven runs at this point and we’re getting a good
look at Pat Mahomes. The Cubs are not a good offensive team, and
mentioning them in the same breath as real NL Central contenders Houston
and St. Louis is silly.

4:08 a.m.: 17 outs into the season, we have our first instance of
Creeping LaRussaism. Top of the sixth, two on, two out and the Mets bring
Dennis Cook into the game to face Mark Grace in relief of
Turk Wendell.

I love baseball, but would a snappy little 2:25 game have been too much to
ask? I was hoping to catch a couple more hours of sleep before starting my
day. At this rate, I’ll be finishing this column over breakfast.

Or lunch.

4:20 a.m.: I have no idea what the park factors for the Tokyo Dome
are, but watching six innings of play leads me to believe it’s a pitchers’
park. There have been a number of balls that looked good off the bat only
to die in the air. The park is 333 feet down the lines, 363 in the gaps and
406 to center field, so it’s not a bandbox. There’s a whole lot of foul
territory as well.

4:34 a.m.: Action! Andrews goes the other way, popping a two-run
home run to right field with one out in the seventh to give the Cubs a 4-1
lead. The way Lieber has looked in the past couple of innings, it certainly
seems like that might be enough.

4:38 a.m.: Unofficially, the earliest rendition of "Take Me Out
to the Ballgame" on record, as Fox Sports cuts to the late Harry
Caray’s restaurant in Chicago, where his widow, Dutchie, leads a packed
house in her husband’s signature song at a little past 6:30 a.m. local time.

I believe the only other time I’ve been watching or listening to baseball
at this hour was a few summers back. The details are hazy, but I was living
on the east coast, and the Phillies and–I believe–the Padres played a
rain-delayed twi-night doubleheader that lasted until 5 a.m. or so. I
remember hearing on WFAN in New York that they were still playing, and
fiddling with my radio dial until I picked up the game. Ah…youth.
Ah…not having to get up in the morning.

4:55 a.m.: Mark Grace breaks up an absurd Bob Brenly
monologue with a home run to right field off Rich Rodriguez. He
looked fooled, but stayed back enough and got under the ball enough to pull
it out.

You don’t even want to know what Brenly was talking about.

5:00 a.m.: Tarrik Brock, trying to become famous as
"Henry Rodriguez‘s Legs," gets his first major-league hit,
singling off Rich Rodriguez. Somehow, I doubt he has any problems with
flying 14 hours for a baseball game.

5:04 a.m.: Don Baylor goes to his bullpen.

5:08 a.m.: Don Baylor regrets going to his bullpen. Brian
walks Edgardo Alfonzo and serves up a two-run bomb to
Mike Piazza, making it 5-3, Cubs.

The pen is a significant problem for the Cubs. There’s really no one out
there with any upside–maybe Felix Heredia–and a number of
guys–Williams, Rick Aguilera–who seem as likely to fall apart as
do anything else. The Cubs are going to be coddling Kerry Wood for
certain, and possibly Ismael Valdes as well, so they’ll need to get
quality innings from their relievers. That just doesn’t seem likely right now.

5:22 a.m.: We’re about to get an early look at Bobby Valentine’s
learning curve. His insistence on letting Rey Ordonez bat in
critical situations was a factor in the Mets’ loss to the Braves in the
NLCS. Ordonez leads off the bottom of the ninth for the Mets, against
Rick Aguilera.

5:26 a.m.: Ordonez bats. Feh.

5:27 a.m.: Ordonez flies to center. He can’t hit, and unless he is
treated as such, the Mets will suffer in close games.

5:34 a.m.: Valentine, who made an extended trip to talk to Randy
Marsh at the start of the half-inning, comes out again with two outs and
protests the game. There is no indication why.

5:35 a.m.: Aguilera strikes out Matt Franco to end the game.
Cubs win, Cubs win. The Cubs’ magic number is 162.

One down, 2,429 to go. All kidding aside, getting up at 2 a.m. to watch
baseball was a unique and fun experience. Whether you watched the game, or
only read this recap, I hope you enjoyed it, too. Baseball’s back!

Joe Sheehan can be reached at