Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 3, 2011

A Good Beginning In The Bronx

It’s the last day of March, but in midtown Manhattan it feels like February as I walk out the front door of my hotel, bound for the 33rd Street Station. The low gray sky is foreboding and there is the occasional spit of cold rain. It’s one stop on the 6 train to Grand Central; and there after a short wait the Lexington Avenue express 4 train pulls into the station, metal screaming against metal as wheels make the last curve even as brakes are applied.

Less than 20 minutes later the 4 rumbles above ground just in time for its 6th stop since I boarded. The familiar female recorded voice announces, “161st Street – Yankee Stadium.” It may feel like winter, but Opening Day is here.

Either the weather or the midweek date on the calendar causes the crowd to be slow to arrive. I have plenty of time to visit either Monument Park or the Yankees Museum. Since the former is outdoors I opt for the latter. There are some new displays for the new season, focusing on the historic city rivalries against the Giants, Dodgers, and more recently the Mets. There are bats, balls, jerseys and scorecards nearly a century old, from the days when the Giants and Yankees both called the Polo Grounds home. Next to those ancient artifacts are similar memorabilia from the middle of the last century, when it seemed like every October the Series featured the Yankees against one of their two cross-town rivals. Here is memorabilia from 1955 when the bums from Brooklyn finally broke through, right next to mementoes of the following season, when Don Larsen achieved perfection. A little further along, a pinstriped jersey bearing the number “2” and a Mets jersey with the name “Piazza” on the back commemorate the most recent Subway Series.

Also on display this year are all of the championship rings, a glittering and gaudy testament to the accomplishments of sports’ preeminent dynasty.

Back out onto the Stadium’s concourses and it’s time to take my seat. With a sudden rush the three decks fill with fans, more than 48,000 wrapped in layers and huddled against a stiff breeze blowing in from left field. Now comes the pageantry of Opening Day. Red, white and blue bunting hangs along the front of each deck of seats. One by one both teams are introduced, the players and coaches taking their places along the baselines. West Point cadets unfurl a massive flag in center field as the national anthem is sung. Two military jets appear in the distance, completing the traditional flyover from center field to home plate even as “the home of the brave” echoes across the diamond.

One bit of pre-game pomp remains. To throw out the ceremonial first pitch, a former Yankee who fired a game’s first pitch more than 500 times in his career is introduced. Mike Mussina is greeted loudly and warmly by the fans, who still appreciate his eight fine seasons in pinstripes. He is that rarest of athletes, one who left the game at the top of his powers, after posting his first 20-victory season in 2008. The Moose fires a strike to Jorge Posada, and the Yankees and visiting Tigers are ready to play ball.

Through six innings the game is mostly about the starting pitchers, no surprise given the difficult conditions. CC Sabathia is unquestionably an ace, but in his two previous Opening Day starts as a Yankee he has been anything but, posting an ERA of 10.24. Today he is solid if not overwhelming. In the second inning he surrenders two singles and a walk with no outs; but he escapes with just a single runner crossing the plate. The Tigers add single runs in the fourth and fifth, the latter unearned after an error by Robinson Cano extends the inning.

But if Sabathia is good enough, Tigers’ starter Justin Verlander is even better. His only hiccup comes in the third inning. Catcher Russell Martin, one of the newest Yankees having been signed as a free agent during the off-season, singles sharply to left in his first at-bat in pinstripes. He is sacrificed to second by Brett Gardner. Then, after a walk to Derek Jeter and with Mark Teixeira at the plate Martin takes off, sliding headfirst into third with a stolen base. As he comes to his feet and brushes the dirt off the front of his uniform, all of us in the stands shout our appreciation for a new hero. One pitch later, Teixeira launches one deep into the second deck in right field for a three run homer. Teixeira remade his off-season workout routine in the hopes of eliminating his notoriously slow starts at the plate. To our delight, the first results are promising.

But while the Yankees display patience at the plate and inflate Verlander’s pitch count, they can muster no more runs against him. After six innings, with the score tied at three, Verlander has thrown 114 pitches and Sabathia 106; both are done for the day.
It is now mid-afternoon and the temperature, which was never warm, is starting to fall. The wind still has the flags and pennants standing at brisk attention. For the past three innings a chill mist has hung over the field, threatening to turn into full-fledged rain. But then, just when winter’s stern refusal to be vanquished seems destined to win out, it all turns.

Joba Chamberlain trots in from the bullpen and puts Detroit down in order in the seventh, needing just 13 pitches to do so. In the last half of the frame Curtis Granderson leads off, facing Phil Coke, a former Yankee who was shipped to the Tigers in the trade that brought Granderson to New York. The center fielder turns on Coke’s delivery and sends the ball soaring into the right field seats, a virtual carbon copy of Teixeira’s earlier blast. The hustling Martin reaches on an error, is sacrificed to second and goes to third on a wild pitch. From there he races home when Jeter sends a sacrifice fly to center, easily sliding in before the throw with the Yankees’ 5th run.

In the eighth inning new setup man Rafael Soriano matches Chamberlain’s pitching perfection, setting down three Tigers on 14 pitches. Then in the bottom of the frame a bloop single down the right field line by Nick Swisher plates Alex Rodriguez to complete the Yankees’ scoring.

That turns the now 6-3 lead over to Mariano Rivera. Twelve pitches later it is done. A fly to right, a fly to center run down by Granderson with a marvelous over the shoulder catch, and finally catcher Alex Avila is the Tigers’ last hope. In the stands we are on our feet and cheering. With his bat on his shoulder Avila watches a Rivera cutter slice across the corner of the plate for strike three.

The almanac will record that the temperature at game time was 42 degrees. By now it has fallen back into the 30’s. Throughout the day, the sharp wind has made it feel a dozen degrees colder. But in that singular moment, as our heroes converge behind the pitcher’s mound for the ritual of congratulation, the cold and the wind are forgotten, replaced by dreams of golden days and warm nights to come. In the end the gray cloud cover is no match for the hope inspired by the red, white and blue bunting, the emerald green of the field of play, and most of all the final score. The longest season has begun as it always should, with victory in the home opener.

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