As A’s players filed out of the Hohokam Stadium clubhouse to warm up for their Cactus League finale, team staffers armed with cardboard U-haul boxes, metal hampers and hand trucks rushed into the clubhouse.
Much like the rest of Oakland’s spring camp, the club’s equipment managers needed to work fast. They had little time to pack for the team’s departure to Japan on Thursday.
“We’ve got a lot of boxes,” one team employee called out, his voice rising above the chorus of zippers and duct tape, and the rattle of hangers being stripped of clothes soon to be stuffed into suitcases. “It’s a two-truck year.”
The A’s have been on an unusual timeline this spring with their season opener coming more than a week earlier than the rest of Major League Baseball. For the A’s, Opening Day is Wednesday — in Tokyo — against the Seattle Mariners. The teams will play again Thursday. When the A’s return home with two regular-season games under their belts, they return to exhibition play for three games against the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series from March 24-26. On March 28, the A’s play their U.S. season opener.
“It’s a weird deal,” A’s infielder Cliff Pennington said.
Pennington would know. The veteran has played two season openers overseas and is well aware of the challenges of such excursions.
“The shortened spring is an adjustment,” he said. “And then the weird part is coming back after playing real games, and then having to play exhibition games again.”
Yet, Pennington will be the first to say the trips are worthwhile.
“The small negatives are way outweighed by the number of awesome and cool parts about it,” Pennington said. “You’ve got to be a little adaptable as a player, adjusting your routine. But that’s pretty small compared to the rest of the cool stuff.”
Pennington was on the A’s 2012 team that also began its season in Japan against the Mariners and lights up when recalling his favorite moments. He took a helicopter tour above the city, visited the U.S. embassy, played baseball with Japanese kids and took in one of Tokyo’s famous fish markets.
“It’s a different world compared (to) here,” Pennington said. “It was really cool to get to see.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin and general manager David Forst also have positive memories of that 2012 getaway. They think it bonded a young roster and laid the groundwork for the team’s surprising 94-victory season and American League West division title.
“It was very impactful for us,” Melvin said. “There were a lot of guys that had not played together in ‘12, and I think it went a long way.”
That isn’t the case this year, as Oakland has most of its key players from last season’s team that advanced to the playoffs. Still, the A’s think something good will come out of the trip.
“We don’t have a young team, but as we do every year, we have new guys,” Forst said. “I do believe that each trip we’ve gone on has been a good experience for the group. That’s part of the reason we keep volunteering.”
But to make it work, the A’s needed to tweak the preseason routine. The team had MLB’s earliest report date for players and only played 19 Cactus League games. No player still on the roster had more than 35 at-bats, and only two pitchers threw as many as 10 innings.
There’s a potential danger in overvaluing the season-opening games as well. Pennington was on the 2014 Arizona Diamondbacks squad that started the season in Australia. But after the team lost both games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, “It was like the air came out of our balloon,” Pennington said.
Arizona lost 16 of the next 21 upon its return.
“Yeah, these are two games that matter,” Pennington said. “You saw in the division last year, it comes down to a couple games, so we do want to win them. But we’re also not going to put all our chips in these two games.”
Pennington said the same goes for individual performances. In 2012, he had three hits in two games in Japan. Then, he had one hit in his next 15 at-bats.
“Inevitably, somebody on the starting lineup is going to go 1 for 8 or 0 for 7 and have a couple strikeouts and is going to be sitting on a technically ‘bad start’ for a week,” Pennington said. “It’s not a bad start. It’s two games. But it’s going to feel like a weight that’s much greater than that.”
Melvin hopes some of the challenges will be good for his players though. He sees the break from a normal spring routine as an opportunity for his group to grow.
“You get so caught up in baseball here, your routine here,” Melvin said. “They’re going to see that baseball is played a little bit differently there and it’s going to be looked at differently. The crowd is different. There’s a lot of fun things that you’ll expand your horizons.”
Like most of his teammates, pitcher Mike Fiers has never been to Japan. The first Opening Day start of his career will come 6,000 miles from home. Clearly, it will be a new experience in more ways than one.
“I know there’s a lot of surrounding things: being in a different country, opening the first game of the season,” Fiers said. “There’s so many variables. But for me it’s just trying to get comfortable to starting and getting out there, being able to throw my pitches for strikes, command the zone, get early outs.”
But for at least one week, wins and losses won’t be the only way to determine the value of a trip. What happens outside of the games might be just as impactful.
Melvin recognizes that foreign experiences are worth it. He might even get to play tourist.
“Last time, I did not do any of that,” he said. “But the second time around, I’ll maybe take some time to smell the roses a little bit, look around, enjoy what should be a really fun trip.”