Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 10, 2014

Back In The Bronx For The Opener

What a grand week to be a sports fan! The UConn Huskies take home a matching set of NCAA basketball championships, the women’s seemingly preordained and the men’s anything but. The regular seasons of the two major arena sports are in their final days. As the NHL and NBA playoff pictures finally come into sharp focus, matching shouts of joy and dismay are heard across the land. The first major championship of the LPGA season ends with an American teenager taking the traditional celebratory leap into Poppie’s Pond by the 18th green of the Tournament Course at Mission Hills. Even as Lexi Thompson does so, her male counterparts gather in Augusta for the PGA Tour’s annual week of drama among the Georgia pines.

But for some fans the preeminent event of every early April is one that must be witnessed in person. It is an event in every sense of the word, for it is about more than just the single game that is at its heart. One by one in stadiums in every part of the country the moment arrives. The long-awaited renewal, dreams of which have helped to stave off the bitter cold of a fierce winter, comes at last for the faithful of each franchise. While in truth every game in the longest season has an equal role in the ultimate outcome, each being 1/162nd of the whole, there is only one that is so filled with hope and opportunity. It is the first day, the day of promise and possibility, and all the joy that the Great Game can offer. It is time for the home opener.

Monday morning is chilly in Gotham, and a sky that was pale blue at first light is gradually fading to overcast gray. But a weather forecast that for much of the week had portended a full day of rain has been replaced by one that promises dry skies until early evening. Perhaps Mother Nature is a baseball fan. The speedy 4 train burrows through its underground tunnel, north from Grand Central beneath the tony coops of Park Avenue and the weathered brownstones of East Harlem. On into the Bronx goes the subway, stopping first at 138th Street, then again at 149th, before finally climbing up into the light of day. Now two stories above street level the elevated train pulls into the 161st Street station. Winter has officially ended. I am back at the Stadium.

Of course I am not alone. More than 48,000 have joined me to welcome the Yankees home from a season-opening six game road trip. It’s been almost a week since they played gracious guest in Houston, giving the Astros a pair of wins to open their home season before finally salvaging the final of the three-game set. On to Toronto went the Yankees, taking two out of three from the Blue Jays to even their record at 3-3. Now at last the road grays have been shed in favor of the famous pinstripes, and we loyal fans get to see our heroes in action once again.

What better way to start a new season’s first trip to the Stadium than with a visit to Monument Park? Nestled in an open-air area behind the center field fence, the rows of outfield bleachers climbing away on either side, here are the displays of all the team’s retired numbers. In a central spot of honor are the original monuments that long ago sat in deepest center field in the original Stadium across the street. They honor manager Miller Huggins, skipper of the great Yankee squads that claimed the franchise’s first championships in the 1920s, and the two most famous members of those rosters, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Here too are plaques and memorials commemorating all the other New York greats down through the years, so many of whom we recognize by their first names, as if they were neighbors or friends. Joe and Mickey, Whitey and Yogi, Thurman and Reggie, all are honored in bronze. So too are those who added to the team’s lore without playing a single game. Managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, owners Jacob Ruppert and the recently departed Boss, and the man with the “voice of God” baritone, long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

It is a recording of Sheppard’s familiar and stately greeting, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen; and welcome to Yankee Stadium,” that heralds the beginning of pregame ceremonies a short while later. As the colorful bunting along the façade of the upper deck flutters in the breeze, the roster of the visiting Baltimore Orioles is introduced, each team member taking his place along the third base foul line. Then to escalating shouts the Yankees are called from the dugout one by one, from trainers and coaches to pitchers and bench players, then finally the starting lineup. It is no surprise that the greatest and most prolonged ovation erupts when the second man in the batting order is announced. It is the final home opener for the captain, and we in the stands are eager to remind Derek Jeter of our loyalty and admiration.

Then just before the game gets underway, Jeter is joined by the other three members of the Core Four; a quartet of home-grown heroes who together won five championships, on the field once again. Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, both of whom retired at the end of last season, walk out to either side of the mound. To the left and right of home plate Jeter and Jorge Posada crouch to receive the twin ceremonial first pitches from their longtime teammates. The cheers are deafening, and eyes are moist.

Now the time for ceremony and remembrance of past glory is over. Hiroki Kuroda takes the mound and the campaign for the next championship begins in earnest. If not overpowering, the crafty 39-year old is certainly effective. Through six and a third he scatters eight hits, allowing but a lone Baltimore run in the 4th. That matches a New York score from the previous inning, but the Yankees quickly reclaim the lead. In the bottom of the frame third baseman Yangervis Solarte, the last man to make the team on the final day of training camp, continues his hot hitting, driving home Alfonso Soriano with a sharp single.

Then in the 5th Jeter electrifies the crowd with a lined shot down the left field line. The ball caroms off the very top of the wall, six inches short of a home run, and the captain slides into second with a double. He scores moments later on a Jacoby Ellsbury single, and before the inning ends the Yankees plate another. By the time new closer David Robertson trots in from the bullpen in the 9th, the score is 4-2. With nine pitches D-Rob sets Baltimore down in order, and the home opener is won by the home team.

The rain is approaching as I prepare to climb the steps to the train platform. For much of the game stiff, cold gusts blew into the stands, first from out of right field and then later from dead center. The longest season has only just begun, and the experts say these Yankees will do well to even make the playoffs. Before I head home from the City I will see another contest in which the Orioles will tee off on Yankee pitching as if they were taking batting practice. Before the home opener first baseman Mark Teixeira was placed on the 15-day DL, and not long after he recorded the Monday save Robertson joined him. Plus there is no escaping the fact that beloved as he is, Jeter will turn 40 in June.

So perhaps the experts are right. Then again, last year at this time the experts told us that the Nationals would defeat the Tigers in the World Series. Apparently the Red Sox and the Cardinals weren’t listening. So we will still play the games, all 162 of them. As I board the 4 train for the trip back to Midtown, it is not windy, raw, and damp. The day of the home opener is warm, and happy, and full of possibility.  Exactly as every home opener should be.

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