Outside the Atlanta Braves' offices is a new electronic message board. On Friday, the first missive went up: "How do you like us so far?"
Inside this home of the Braves, there's jubilation over Atlanta's 10-0 start, which has tied the National League record for consecutive victories at the start of a season. The Braves can tie the major league record--11 straight, set last year by the Oakland A's--today in Houston. Owner Ted Turner, the self-proclaimed Mouth of the South, predicted a National League West pennant before the year began, even though his club had been in the second division for eight straight years. Now, word has it, he's threatening to have ring measurements taken for the whole organization.
Since only four teams in this century have begun seasons with winning streaks as long or longer than the Braves', it's appropriate to ask an ancient baseball question: How important is April?
Traditionally, there's been no answer to this stumper.
For instance, look at the disparate results achieved by the four modern teams that started seasons with streaks that were as long or longer. The '62 Pittsburgh Pirates and '66 Cleveland Indians both won 10 in a row, yet finished their seasons poorly, in fourth and fifth places, the Tribe barely managing a 81-81 mark.
On the other hand, the '55 Brooklyn Dodgers won 10 off the bat and were world champions. Although Oakland holds the all-time record, the A's 18-3 April mark was the high point of their season. They were just 46-42 thereafter, then were swept in the playoffs by the Yankees.
Some managers, such as Baltimore's Earl Weaver, whose Orioles have a horrible recent history in April, try to evade the whole business by quibbling about semantics, playing word games such as, "What constitutes a start? Is it a week? A month?"
Now, however, after some drab research in the archives, we've got a hint of an answer. If the history of four-division play, inaugurated in '69, is an accurate indication, then a major league team's play in April is far more important than generally has been thought.
The lesson of the past 13 seasons seems to be: beauty's only skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone. In other words, while a fast, pretty April start is a considerable help, an ugly April ending is almost always an insurmountable burden. The lesson of spring is simple. Win 'em all, if you can, but for heaven's sake, don't lose 'em all.
Several dramatic statistics emerge from studying the history of April play since '69.
Any team that finishes April in last place, or even next-to-last place, has less than a 5 percent chance of winning the division flag, and perhaps only about a 1 percent chance of winning the World Series.
Of the 104 teams since '69 that were last or next-to-last in their divisions on May 1, only the '79 Pirates (who were dead last) won the World Series. Only one other such club has even gotten to the Series--the '75 Boston Red Sox. And, in all, only three other such April laggards have won their divisions, the '73 A's, '74 Pirates and '77 Phillies.
A preponderance of the worst April clubs really are the game's bad teams. Of those aforementioned 104 teams, 77 finished fourth or lower.
All this means that, if they don't get in gear in the next two weeks and get off the standings' bottom two rungs, perennial contenders such as the Cincinnati Reds, Phillies, Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles have a lot of precedent against them. Also, it may indicate that the Red Sox, currently in last place, may have been merely a nice fluke in '81.
As a corollary, teams that win their divisions almost invariably are in no worse than third place at the end of April.
Of the 52 division winners, 23 ended April in the lead, 13 were second and eight were third. Forty-four of the 52 started May securely in the top half of their divisions. Only five were in fifth or sixth place.
That's why clubs such as Kansas City and Montreal are well-positioned now, even though they aren't ahead.
Also, it's unquestionably a significant edge to end April with a lead, even if it's a tiny one. Of the 52 division leaders on May 1, 44 percent (23) went on to win, while seven were second and eight were third.
So, those first-place folks in Chicago (7-0), St. Louis (8-3) and, of course, Atlanta, have plenty to whoop about if their clubs are still playing well at April's end. It should be noted, however, that in the last seven years, teams with April leads have also had some spectacular collapses. Since '75, 11 April leaders have ended up division champs, but 11 others have finished fourth or lower.
Finally, what happens to the hot team of April, the club that attracts the lightning rod of national attention?
This, sorry to say in Atlanta, is a touchier proposition. No hot April, no matter how wonderful, seems to be a guarantee of anything. For instance, in '78 the Oakland A's started 16-5, but ended in sixth place. And the Giants of '73 started with an 18-6 month, but finished 11 games behind in third place.
All in all, however, being the toast of April is well worth the effort. Of the 13 teams since '69 to have the best opening month in all of baseball, seven have finished as divisional winners. But, interestingly, not one of those 13 teams has been able to win a world title.
A few teams even have a kind of April trademark. The Dodgers, for instance, always seem to tip their hand when they're going to have a great year. In '74, '77, '78 and '81, Los Angeles ended April with the best record in the National League; those are also the last four seasons the Dodgers ended up in the World Series.
Lest we get carried away with this treatise on The Importance of Being April, let's mention that eight times, the club that led its division on May 1st ended up its season behind the club that was in last place on that date.
As has been said for more than a century, anything can happen in a long season.
But, contrary to popular wisdom, that's not the way to bet.
What we will see in baseball by the end of this first paltry month will be, in more cases than not, what we will get in October.