MESA, Ariz. -- It was at about this time a year ago that the Orioles began making final preparations for their politically charged goodwill trip to Cuba, and the historic visit was the source of much anticipation and apprehension at the club's spring training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
But when the club returned from Havana and struggled through the early months of the regular season, some members of the team wondered privately whether the controversial trip was worth the effort.
Perhaps two months from now, the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets will be wondering the same thing, but they happily opened spring training early to prepare for Major League Baseball's latest -- and most ambitious -- international initiative.
The Cubs and Mets will travel to Japan during the final week of spring training to play a pair of exhibitions, then open the regular season with two games in Tokyo. The March 29 season opener will be the first ever played outside of North America.
It will be a grueling trip for both teams, but Cubs general manager Ed Lynch considers it a necessary next step toward making major-league baseball a truly international sport.
"I think it's very important that we market our game globally," Lynch said, as the Cubs went through their third day of workouts at Fitch Park on Wednesday. "We need to expand to new markets. We're very proud of the fact that we've been chosen to represent Major League Baseball in Asia. You might have some inconvenience for a few days, but this is a historic event that the players and all of us will remember for the rest of our lives."
The level of inconvenience figures to be far greater than what the Orioles experienced last spring. Havana is barely an hour's flight from the team's spring training base. The club was over and back in less than 48 hours. The Cubs and Mets must travel halfway around the world, play four games and travel back to continue the regular-season schedule. They'll have less than two days in between to shake off the effects of the long journey.
If that isn't difficult enough, the Cubs will be home for one full day before flying out to St. Louis for three games and on to Cincinnati for another series against a National League Central rival.
Nice international gesture? Sure.
Great way to embark on a 162-game season that is grueling enough without a season-opening 20,000-mile round trip? Not quite.
"It's baseball, and it's two games that count in the standings," said new Cubs manager Don Baylor, who made several exhibition trips to Japan as a player. "Distractions? Only from a logistical point of view. I hope guys will be looking at it the way I would be looking at it, if I were going to Japan for the first time. Major League Baseball has taken it upon itself to spread baseball around the world. It's a privilege to go over there and play."
Of course, the success of the trip -- from the viewpoint of the players -- could depend on how they perform when they return. Former Orioles manager Ray Miller altered his starting rotation late last spring to accommodate Juan Guzman's reluctance to visit Cuba. Right-hander Scott Erickson opened the season with eight losses in his first nine decisions after changing his spring routine to pitch in Havana.
It wasn't a happy time. The Orioles won a close game at Latin American Stadium, but seemed unmotivated in a lopsided loss to the Cuban all-star team at Camden Yards a month later. There even was an undercurrent of delayed disenchantment about the exhibition series later in the season, when some veteran players rebelled against losing another day off to play an exhibition game against the club's top minor-league affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
"You want to stay away from making it a negative," Baylor said. "Babe Ruth and other players of his time went to Japan. Major-league players have been going there for years. Now, we have some of their players playing here in the States. I never thought I would see that happen when I first went over there.
"It gives those young Japanese kids an opportunity to see the major-league players. They're copying [Jose] Canseco's and [Mark] McGwire's and [Sammy] Sosa's batting stance. They look up to major-league players. I look at this as a positive."
One thing is certain. The players cannot say that the trip was forced on them. The players on both teams voted to make the trip after several other clubs were considered and at least one -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- voted not to go.
The Orioles players also had to approve the trip to Havana, but they were under tremendous pressure from the State Department and Major League Baseball to take part in the goodwill mission.
"Our players had to approve this trip before the organization gave its consent," Lynch said. "The first step in the process was a players meeting, and they voted to go. It's something we've all thought about. Our medical people are trying to put something together to deal with the jet lag. We're confident it should not be a problem for us."
Still, there is the danger that the trip will alter the focus of the team as it embarks on what Cubs fans hope will be a comeback season. This is no time for this particular organization -- coming off a last-place Central finish in 1999 -- to be driven to distraction.
"It's not the distractions," said veteran catcher Joe Girardi. "It's how you deal with distraction. Every team is going to have distractions. You've got to go in with an open mind and say, `Yeah, it's going to be tough, but it will be a positive experience. And come April 10, it isn't going to be an issue anymore.'
"The travel? Yes, it's going to be hard, but the Mets have to do it and we have to do it. And the West Coast teams have tough travel schedules every year."
Girardi knows something about distractions. He earned a handful of world championship rings playing in the distraction capital of the world -- New York.
"If you're looking to blame something," Girardi said, "you're probably not going to have a good year anyway."