Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2012

Sunshine And Cheers At The Home Opener

As the #4 train begins to slow to a stop on its elevated track, the recorded female voice makes the familiar announcement that never fails to quicken the pulse and raise the spirit; “This is 161st Street, Yankee Stadium!” I know that it exists only in my imagination, yet I always hear the exclamation point at the end. As I descend to street level the sky above is a brilliant arc of robin’s egg blue, given texture by a few stray cottony puffballs of cumulus. Across 161st street the monolithic Stadium looms. After an initial six games on the road, on a lovely Friday afternoon in mid-April, the Yankees have come home to the Bronx; and we who are their fans are here to welcome them.

Each team plays 81 home games over the course of the longest season, but the first one is always special. Whether it is the actual first game of the season, or as it is in this case the seventh; it is still a day that is filled with the boundless hope of spring, a new campaign, a fresh start. If the initial road trip for any team has not gone well, all can be set right with a win in the Home Opener. Fans arrive early for this first contest, and the watering holes and souvenir stores below the elevated train track are all crowded and noisy. Even though the first pitch is well over an hour away, Babe Ruth Plaza, the wide forecourt between the street and the Stadium itself, is already alive with scores of the faithful wearing Yankees’ gear. Many are taking pictures of each other and of the looming limestone exterior of the Stadium, its name in gold leaf lettered high atop each of the four main gates.

Once inside one is surrounded by reminders of this franchise’s history and dominance. Hung along one wall of the Great Hall, the broad concourse that is the main entry area for most fans, are ten giant banners featuring twenty portraits of Yankee legends. On one side of each banner, in sepia tones, are images of the old heroes, with names like Babe and Joe and Yogi and the Mick. On the other side is a full color portrait of a more recent star, like Thurman or Reggie or Goose or Gator. Above the wide range of concession stands along the Field Level concourse are large pictures of championship celebrations, each identified simply by its year.  One can see all of this without ever venturing out to Monument Park beyond the center field fence, or standing in line to tour the Yankees Museum.

By ramp or stairway, escalator or elevator, we fans find our way to our appointed level, until at last we walk out into the seating bowl itself. There at last it spreads out before us, as at twenty-nine other ballparks across North America; the perfect diamond upon which the Great Game is played. Today this one in the Bronx is sun-dappled, the perfect brown of the infield receiving final pre-game ministrations from the grounds crew; while beyond it the brilliant green of the outfield stretches in its arc from foul line to foul line, and out to the warning track and at last the outfield fence.

As always at the Home Opener there is time allotted for special ceremonies. All of the members of each team are introduced individually, beginning with reserves and pitchers and ending with the starting lineup in batting order. First each player from today’s opponent, the Los Angeles Angels, comes out of the dugout to take his place along the third base line. Then, to growing cheers, the players in pinstripes are announced. By the time the name of the leadoff Yankee hitter, team captain and most-loved modern Yankee Derek Jeter is called, a sell-out crowd is on its feet and roaring with anticipation. With both teams now lined up along the base paths, Broadway performer Jeremy Jordan sings the national anthem as a huge American flag is unfurled in center field. At the anthem’s climax two Navy jets appear in the distance beyond center field and roar loudly and low over the cheering masses. With that, it is almost time.

But first, at this Home Opener, there is one more special moment for the nearly 50,000 fans crowded into this great ballpark in the Bronx. The honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch has been given to Jorge Posada. For seventeen seasons in pinstripes Posada embodied the pride, accomplishment, and determination that are the hallmarks of this most successful sports franchise. Having retired in January, Posada returns today to a loud and sustained ovation as he walks from the dugout to the mound, accompanied by his young son and with his father walking to home plate to catch the ceremonial toss. The Yankees have taken the field, but in a touching tribute to their recently retired colleague they all assemble behind the mound rather than going to their positions. Jorge tosses a strike to his Dad, hugs each of his former teammates in turn, and we are ready to play ball.

No matter the opponent, no matter the occasion, there is no guarantee about the outcome of any game. That of course, is why they play them. But if I were commissioner I would be sorely tempted to invoke the “best interests of the game” power that accompanies that post to mandate victory for each team’s Home Opener. While it of course does not always happen, surely devoted fans deserve no less.

On the mound for the Yankees is Hiroki Kuroda, signed as a free agent from the Los Angeles Dodgers during the off-season. He was roughed up a bit in his first regular season outing during the initial road trip, and so we fans anxiously wait to see whether this newest Yankee will become our newest hero. Angels’ shortstop Erick Aybar grounds Kuroda’s second pitch up the middle for a single. One out later, Albert Pujols comes to the plate. The off-season signing of Pujols by the Angels was the biggest story of the winter, and when Aybar steals second with Pujols at the plate, an early wave of tension sweeps across the Stadium. But Pujols flies harmlessly to left and Kuroda strikes out Kendry Morales to end the threat and earn some early applause from the crowd.

In the bottom of the first Ervin Santana starts strongly for Los Angeles, fanning both Jeter and Curtis Granderson. But then Alex Rodriguez singles and Santana suddenly loses control. He walks Robinson Cano on four pitches and Mark Teixeira on five. With the bases loaded and two out, right fielder Nick Swisher steps in. Swish looks at two balls before fouling one off. Then he drills Santana’s fourth offering to the base of the wall in deep center field. It’s a bases-clearing standup double, and the tension of ten minutes earlier is replaced by euphoria.

It is a Home Opener that goes according to script. The three runs in the 1st inning are padded with solo home runs by Rodriguez in the 3rd and Granderson in the 5th. What we could not have known when Aybar led off with that single was that it would be one of just five hits, all singles, that Kuroda would surrender all day; or that when he stole second he would be one of just two Angels to advance that far. Before a happy and cheering crowd the game moves swiftly. When Bobby Abreu manages the Angels’ fifth hit, an infield single, to lead off the 9th, manager Joe Girardi comes out of the dugout to take the ball from Kuroda. As David Robertson trots in from the bullpen the newest Yankee leaves to a loud and sustained standing ovation. On a day that began with a Broadway performer singing, Hiroki Kuroda’s first audition for New York fans has gone beautifully.

Robertson needs just eight pitches to end the contest. On his second he induces a double-play grounder from Pujols, and then he takes six more to fan Morales. In just over two and one-half hours the Yankees have won the first of their 81 home contests by a score of 5-0.

No team wins all of their home games of course. Even as we fans cheer our heroes as they assemble in the infield to congratulate one another on this victory, we know that truth. In fact, just 24 hours later Phil Hughes will pitch poorly and C. J. Wilson will pitch very well for Los Angeles, allowing the Angels to even the series. Sometime during the season there will even no doubt be the dreaded home losing streak, for the Yankees and every other team as well. But all of that lies in the future, and will hopefully, especially in the Bronx, be far outweighed by days like this.

In his post-game interview, Kuroda was asked what it felt like to win the Home Opener. “It was the greatest feeling in the world,” he said through his interpreter, “and I’d like to continue it as much as I can.” As we buoyant fans make our way out of the Stadium on a lovely April afternoon, on a day that went exactly as it was supposed to, few of us speak any Japanese; but we couldn’t have said it any better.

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