Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 9, 2015

Always The Same, Yet Totally Different

Everyone has a favorite sign of spring. For some it is moving the clocks forward. No longer beginning the commute home in the dark carries with it the promise of warm days ahead. For others it is the sight of the first tentative shoot of the new season’s earliest flowers. Be it crocus or tulip, that one verdant sprig is a happy reminder of the lush green that will soon stretch in all directions. Yet for some folks, the surest sign of the season of hope and renewal is a bit different. For this particular group of sports fans, the certainty of spring is symbolized by a subway ride.

The B and D trains charge up Manhattan’s west side along their parallel tracks, turning hard right in Washington Heights and continuing beneath the Harlem River into the Bronx. The 4 train paces them along the east side’s Park and Lexington Avenues, until it too slides under the river. The latter is my own regular choice of transportation from my hotel in Midtown to the spot where the three lines converge at a single station. The B and D remain below ground, while the 4 climbs out of its tunnel onto an elevated track just as it approaches the common destination. The familiar recorded female voice tells all we fans in the subway cars what we already know, “This is 161st Street – Yankee Stadium.” Another Opening Day has arrived.

There are those who complain that the Great Game is too slow; that in an Internet Age its pace no longer appeals to young people. The new commissioner has begun efforts to address those concerns. That’s a good thing, for while the goal should not be to have baseball attempt to compete with the favorite computerized diversion of the moment, it is indisputable that contests have grown steadily and often unnecessarily longer over the past few decades. But a careful balance must be struck, for much of the appeal of the sport is in its traditions and its timelessness. As I descend from the subway platform the crowd making its collective push into the Stadium has no shortage of children and teenagers. Young and old alike, we seize on Opening Day’s reminders of the game’s constancy.

Sushi and tenderloin sandwiches can be had, but the old standbys are on still on offer. Hot dogs of course, and here making his slow way up the steps of the third deck is a familiar face, worn with age. It’s a vendor who seems to have worked both here and at the old yard across the street forever, beginning this season as he ended the last one, with his high-pitched rolling offering of “Craaaackerrrr Jaaaacks!” Do they even sell the candy popcorn anywhere other than ballparks anymore?

The Stadium itself, like every park across the land, is dressed as a debutante for her coming out ball. Red, white and blue bunting fronts the second and third decks, ringing the field from foul pole to foul pole, fluttering gently in the light breeze. On this day, and then not again until October and the playoffs, all members of both teams are introduced, jogging from the dugout to stand on the sidelines. The visiting Blue Jays are greeted with customary yet not hostile boos. Indeed one or two who formerly played in New York even hear a smattering of cheers. So it is for former Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, and then again for former Yankees catcher Russell Martin.

But the strongest cheers are naturally held for the introduction of the home squad. Yet even as we in the stands give voice to our hopes for the season about to begin, the men in pinstripes remind us that this is a team in transition. Gone now are the Core Four, and in their place is an uncertain collection of aging position players feared to be past their primes and a pitching staff with enough medical issues to script a season for a new hospital soap opera.

Another tradition of the Great Game is that every April pundits must offer their predictions for how the longest season will play out. Almost all have placed this Yankee team in the second tier of the American League East, with many projecting that this year the boys over in Queens will rule the Gotham rivalry.

Those predictions seem spot on this Monday afternoon. The Yankees offer but token offense, garnering just three hits off Toronto starter Drew Hutchison, a young hurler who may have a bright future but whose win today pushes his major league record exactly one game over .500 while bringing his career ERA down below 4.50.

Meanwhile on the mound for New York Masahiro Tanaka does nothing to quell concerns about his fragile right elbow. Tanaka retires the first five men he faces, three on strikeouts, but in the third inning he surrenders five runs on a walk, a throwing error by third baseman Chase Headley, and three solid hits, including a long home run to left by Edwin Encarnacion. The warm sun is still shining and the sky is still brilliant blue when the game ends, but the 6-1 Blue Jays victory casts a pall on Opening Day.

But in the longest season every game is followed quickly by another, and the two teams return to the field under very different conditions Wednesday evening. The familiar subway ride may be a harbinger of spring, but a thermometer struggling to climb above 40 reminds that it is early in both the meteorological and sporting season. To make matters worse a stiff breeze from center field turns both playing and spectating into twin acts of endurance and true loyalty. When the Blue Jays take a 3-1 lead into the late innings and Dickey’s knuckleball seems too much for Yankee batters, that loyalty is put to the test. In meeting the challenge, and being rewarded, I am reminded of another of baseball’s enduring truths.

Most of the pundits forecasting a gloomy year in the Bronx are relying, to degrees ranging from substantial to slavish, on the advanced metrics which now dominate analysis of the Great Game. No sport is more suited to complex statistical review, for numbers have always been an integral part of any discussion about a baseball player, or team, or time. And in the fullness of a 162 game season, there is far more often than not good reason to rely on the predictive ability of sabermetrics. But they still play every single one of those 162 games, and every single one remains utterly unpredictable.

Down to their final six outs on a frosty April night, the Yankees produce the following sequence against Toronto’s bullpen. Pinch hitter Chris Young lofts a soft popup down the right field line that just eludes three Blue Jays chasing it. Young trots into second with a double. Jacoby Ellsbury raps a sharp single to center, advancing Young to third with what will be the only hard hit of the inning. Brett Gardner is hit by a pitch, loading the bases. A wild pitch from reliever Brett Cecil sends Young home. After a strikeout by Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira is intentionally walked to again load the bases. Brian McCann becomes the second Yankee of the inning to be hit by a pitch, forcing home Ellsbury to knot the game at 3-3. Chase Headley hits a one-hopper back to the mound, which glances off the pitcher’s arm and into the gap between short and third. As the ball rolls into left field for a single Gardner races home, giving the Yankees their first lead and soon their first win of 2015.

Come October, the pundits and all of the advanced metrics will likely have the last laugh, with baseball winter again coming early to the Bronx. But between now and then, one frosty night in April won’t be the only time nor will the Stadium be the only place fans are reminded that at the core of the Great Game’s enduring appeal is that for all its constancy and tradition every contest is still unique.

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