Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2010

A Home Opener To Remember

It happens annually in thirty cities across the land. For the devoted fan, it is the one pure day. It is the home opener. Were it up to me, the committee that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has assembled to look at the game and recommend anything at all that might improve it would propose a rule that would mandate a victory by every home team at its opener. Fans everywhere, of teams both mighty and meek, deserve that one pure, glorious, happy day.

For me, this year is especially significant and yet, in its prelude, forlorn. The 4 train rumbles up from Manhattan, covering the familiar course. Underneath the Harlem River into the Bronx, stopping at 138th and 149th Streets along the Grand Concourse; then the slight left turn and the more pronounced right turn, the train swaying a bit, before climbing back into the light of day. The train ascends into a chilly and overcast morning, the sky a saucer of milk. Almost immediately on my left are the ruins. The House That Ruth Built is now in its final stages of demise. Most of what was once a stadium and diamond is now just a debris field. Only the shell of the structure along the first base and right field line remains standing; and soon that will be pulled down.

I know; believe me, I know, how much better the amenities, creature comforts, sight lines and fan experience all are at the new palace across the street; the place where I will soon take my seat. But as I am joined by other fans peering silently out the subway windows, I cannot help but remember what happened there, right there. The Babe and Lou, Joltin’ Joe, Larsen’s perfection, Whitey and Yogi, Mickey and Roger, Reggie’s back-to-back-to-back homers, the dominance of the Torre teams; it all happened right there. Time moves on, but not all memories fade.

So down the subway platform steps and across the street into the one-year old new Stadium; and a magnificent piece of work it is. I take my seat on the first base side; soon the ceremonies will begin. As I said, this is an especially significant home opener.  At only one of the thirty do fans get to celebrate the glory of the preceding autumn. And the new Stadium, like its predecessor, was home to a championship in its very first year.

One by one, in reverse order of their jersey numbers, the players from last year’s squad are called to a spot in front of the pitcher’s mound to receive their World Series Championship rings. It is a gaudy bauble that almost no one will ever actually wear, but all will cherish. The decision to bestow the rings in reverse order of players’ numbers means that the beloved captain, wearing #2, is last to trot out of the home dugout. But after Derek Jeter has received his ring and the thunderous applause has died, one box remains on the table in front of the mound. There are of course several members of the 2009 Yankees who have moved on to other teams. But through a mystical convergence of free agent signings and the MLB schedule, one special player has moved on to the team that is today’s opponent. That one is Hidekei Matsui, MVP of the World Series, who notched six RBI’s in the conclusive game. He is called from the visitor’s dugout last of all, to an overwhelming outpouring of emotion from fans and former teammates alike. If the game were called off at this exact point, not a single person would leave unhappy.

No such postponement occurs of course, and on a cool April day in the Bronx, with a long season stretching out ahead and hope springing eternal, the home opener goes as every home opener should.

On the mound, left-hander Andy Pettite, returning to action after having won the clinching game in each of the three 2009 post-season series, pitches a classic Pettite game. He is never overwhelming, but he is never overwhelmed. He throws shutout ball for six frames, and escapes a first and third one-out jam in the sixth by inducing a double play grounder.

Meanwhile the Yankees offense is on the march. Newly re-acquired DH Nick Johnson (he began his career in New York from 2001 through 2003) returns to the Stadium with a homer deep into the bleachers in right in the first inning. Captain Jeter homers into the Yankee bullpen in the third, then follows that with a bases loaded single in the fourth to plate another run. Then with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth inning, Alex Rodriguez singles home two runs and the Yankees lead 5-0.

Fans relax as the game seems well in hand; but nine innings must still play out. The Yankees stretch the lead to 7 before one reliever gives up a solo homer in the eighth, then another gives up a grand slam in the ninth.

Suddenly the score is just 7-5, and there are still two outs to go. Fortunately for the Bronx squad, they have had for years an answer to “suddenly.” As the first chords of “Enter Sandman” blare out of the Stadium’s speakers, the crowd rises as one to cheer the appearance of the closer, Mariano Rivera. The first Angels batter duels him to a full count, then whiffs desperately late at a cutter for strike three. Next steps in the recently departed one, Matsui.

I wrote not so long ago that I would happily applaud Hidekei on Opening Day, and I fear that I have not fully conveyed how emotional that moment was for all in attendance. But I also wrote that I would then happily see him, now wearing another uniform, go hitless for the game. Preparing to face Rivera, Matsui is zero for four.

Somewhere, there are probably those who would write about what next happened as some epic matchup. But in the end, in the here and now, it was pretty simple. One guy was wearing pinstripes, one guy wasn’t. One pitch, a cutter of course; one weak swing, one pop-up to Robinson Cano at second base, and on this one pure, glorious, happy day, it was time for the home fans to exult.

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Responses

  1. WEll, Mike, even though I’m not a Yankee’s fan, I really enjoyed your very well written piece on Opening Day. You capture the atmosphere perfectly. Great job, Bill (The On Deck Circle)


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