Years later, it's still a little hard to explain how the 1982 Braves won.
They weren't supposed to win. They weren't picked to win.
They just started winning. And one win after another, they started believing that they were supposed to win.
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So they did.
The Braves hadn't won a division title in the 12 years before 1982. They wouldn't win another division title in the eight years after 1982.
But in 1982, under new manager Joe Torre, the Braves won their first 13 games. They found themselves in first place, and they basically stayed there, finally clinching the division on the final day of the season.
"We won a bunch of games early we had no business winning," said Randy Johnson, a backup infielder on that team. "Then it was the confidence. It was weird, but it was fun to watch.
"That's why you preach getting off to a good start."
Basically, the Braves won in 1982 because they won in April, just as the Tigers won in 2006 because they won in April, and the Rays won in 2008 because they won in April, and the Padres nearly won last year because they won in April.
It's not foolproof.
Of the 18 division winners the last three seasons, only six were in first place a month into the season.
The Mets were in first place on May 1 last year. And they didn't exactly ride that fast start to October glory.
But some teams do, and they're usually teams like those 1982 Braves. They're teams that haven't won, teams that we all say shouldn't win.
They're teams that need a little boost to believe themselves that they can win, because they're teams everybody else says are going to collapse.
They're teams like those 2008 Rays, who had the first winning April in franchise history, but still weren't taken seriously by many outside their own clubhouse.
That year, manager Joe Maddon emphasized winning from the start of spring training (just as Torre had done with the '82 Braves). Maddon also handed out T-shirts that year with the slogan "9=8," and explained that if nine players played nine hard innings every day, they could be one of the eight teams standing at the end.
|Famous Fast Starts|
And Maddon knew how important it was to play well early.
"We had to know we could do it," Maddon said this spring. "Once you got off to that good start, then '9=8' becomes viable. Otherwise, they throw that T-shirt into the back of the locker, and it's just another stupid idea I had."
Maddon might be baseball's biggest current proponent of fast starts, and not just because of 2008.
The way he sees it, the 2008 Rays don't win the American League East and get to the World Series without starting strong. But the way he sees it, the 2009 Rays might have gotten back there if they hadn't started so slow.
"We mostly learn from our negative experiences," he said.
In '09, the Rays were 9-14 at the end of April, and they had already dug a hole they would never climb out of.
"I think in our division, it's very important," he said. "There are so many good teams, and once they get on top and smell blood, it's hard to catch them."
That's true, but it's also true that teams that contend every year don't need a fast start to build confidence.
Starting fast mattered much more to those 2008 Rays, and to Bud Black's 2010 Padres.
"Confidence and momentum are huge," Black said.
The Padres were picked by many to finish last. But after going 15-8 in April, they spent much of the year in first place. They lost the division on the final day of the season, but they still won 90 games, the most by any Padre team since the 1998 National League champions.
They were a little bit like Tony Pena's 2003 Royals, who are still the only Kansas City team in the last 16 years to finish with a winning record. The Royals began that season 9-0, and they were 17-7 at the end of April.
"I remember when we started the season, we said the key was starting fast," Pena said. "When we broke camp, we talked about being in midseason form."
It's hard to explain how that happens. It's hard to explain how an otherwise average team seems to win in May and June and July simply because it began winning in April.
It's almost as if once a team begins winning, the players start thinking that they're supposed to win.
So they keep winning. And sometimes, they keep it up, all the way to October.