Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 25, 2022

Every Game Is Opening Day For Someone

Once upon a very long time ago, this fan first visited a major league ballpark.  The site was Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., hastily built in 1911 after Boundary Field, the original wooden home of the first local franchise called the Senators, burned to the ground just weeks before Opening Day.  Like almost all its contemporaries, Griffith Stadium met the wrecking ball long ago, with Howard University Hospital now occupying the spot in northwest D.C. where once the Senators entertained the other seven American League clubs.  It would be a lie and given the passage of decades not a very convincing one, to claim a clear memory of that day.  Yet in the recesses of the mind an image persists.  It is of watching those Senators playing a long-forgotten opponent from seats on the first base side.  That picture can still be called forth at will, if not the result of the game, though odds are it was not favorable to the home nine.

We grow jaded as we age.  So much in life that once seemed new and fresh becomes familiar and banal.  But once every springtime – except for the COVID-infected 2020 season – there is an experience that familiarity cannot diminish.  Late Saturday morning, the Metro North train from Stamford crawls slowly around a sweeping right turn as it leaves the main line between Connecticut and Gotham, crossing over to the more western route that daily takes commuters to and from their homes in towns along the Hudson River.  This train, however, will not venture north to Greystone or Croton-Harmon, for the final stop of its journey is the first station on this line, at 153rd Street in the Bronx.  Passengers spill onto the platform and mount the steps to the open-air station.  From there they follow a pedestrian walkway that crosses back over the railroad tracks before descending again to ground level, leaving just a short walk past the ghosts of yesteryear to the new Yankee Stadium.  For this fan, it is the first visit of the new season, a personal opening day.

The bunting that hung two weeks earlier for the campaign’s real first game is gone, and there are no special pre-game ceremonies.  But after crossing 161st Street and Babe Ruth Plaza, which serves as the Stadium’s concrete front yard, after navigating security and passing through one of the many active turnstiles, then finally winding one’s way through the growing crowd, there is still the visceral thrill of the year’s first glimpse of the field.  The exterior of the Stadium is a blend of neutral colors – limestone, granite, and concrete.  Surely the exposure to that nondescript backdrop during one’s approach helps make the sudden appearance of the playing surface so exhilarating.

Suddenly there is color, in deep, brilliant hues.  A vast greensward sweeps away from the closest foul line out across the acres of outfield, its boundaries sharply defined by the red-tinged dirt of the warning track in the distance, and the infield near at hand.  All that is almost encircled by the climbing rows of dark blue seats, stretching up over three separate tiers, except in the furthest reaches of the outfield.  There, on both sides of straightway center, the metallic gleam of the bleachers reflects the sun and dazzles the eye.  And in between those sections, beyond the outfield wall in the deepest reach of the field, is Monument Park, the eternal tribute to the pantheon of heroes that have worn the uniform of sports’ most celebrated franchise.  For a moment or two, the club’s offseason sins of not signing one’s favored free agent or extending a local star’s contract are, if not forgiven, at least set aside.

Still, this fan did not drive down from New England and take the express train from Stamford to gawk at some scenery, no matter how majestic.  There is a game to be contested against the visiting squad from Cleveland.  The Guardians are off to a decent start, albeit one measured against low expectations.  The latter is never the case in the Bronx, where the passage of a dozen years since the Yankees last World Series appearance is like an angry gallstone burning the gut of every New York fan.  After triumphing in the opener of this three-game set the previous evening, the home squad gives the ball to Nestor Cortes for this afternoon’s quest to win two in a row.

The 27-year-old left-hander arrived in New York bearing the nickname Hialeah Kid, a nod to his Florida home from infancy, after his family relocated from Cuba before his first birthday.   But that moniker is quickly giving way to a new one, Nasty Nestor.  A Yankees draftee, Cortes had an indifferent minor league career that included two detours to other teams, a Rule 5 Draft claim by Baltimore in 2017 that the Orioles later renounced, and a trade to Seattle in 2019 that ended with a release from the Mariners.  Each time Cortes returned to New York’s farm system, and finally last year he made the big club and instantly became a fan favorite.  Certainly Cortes’s 2.90 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 93 innings contributed to that, but no more so than his drooping mustache that tests the limits of the Yankees facial hair policy, his less than herculean physique, and his unique windup, which will sometimes vary from pitch to pitch, as if he is making it up on the fly.  Cortes is Everyman in pinstripes.

He delights us today with six-plus innings of solid work, fanning eight while yielding just one hit.  Unfortunately, that ball winds up in the right field seats off the bat of Josh Naylor in the 5th inning, a home run that also plates Amed Rosario, who had walked, and puts Cleveland on top 2-0.  They are the first earned runs surrendered by Cortes this season.  But the Yankees strike back with a pair of their own in the home half, and when Cortes departs in the 7th the score is still tied.  We loudly cheer our unlikely hero, as we did a few innings earlier when he outraced, and ultimately out dove, the Guardians’ Steven Kwan to first base for the putout on a ground ball that had pulled Anthony Rizzo well off the bag.  It was an extraordinarily athletic play from the Yankee who looks least like an athlete.  The legend of Nestor grows.

The balance of the game is a taut back-and-forth.  We take the lead on a Josh Donaldson home run in the 7th.  We give it back one inning later.  We are down to our last strike in the 9th, and a beautiful spring afternoon suddenly seems gray and chill.  But then Isiah Kiner-Falefa sends a double off the wall in left, scoring pinch-runner Tim Locastro, and the game is once again tied.  Left out of the starting lineup, not surprising given his slow start, Gleyber Torres is sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter.  This count also goes to two strikes, and extra innings seem certain.  Except Torres has a better idea, sending the 1-2 delivery into the gap in right-center field for a long single that allows Kiner-Falefa to scamper home.  Yankees 5, Guardians 4.

Heading for the exit, this fan recalls how from time to time during the game, the jumbotron on the giant center field scoreboard displayed messages paid for by fans, a common practice across MLB.  There were celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries, and multiple displays welcoming someone, usually a child, to his or her first Yankee game.  Given the times, no doubt many of those youngsters spent the day mesmerized by a smartphone app rather than anything happening on the field.  Perhaps they even missed the oversized greeting their parents paid for.  But maybe, just maybe, there were one or two who years hence will not be able to recall the final score or even what team the Yankees played but will still carry a clear image in their mind, of watching their heroes from a seat on the first base side.   

Back past the ghosts now, the wraiths who linger in the shadows around Heritage Field, the public ballpark on the site of the original House that Ruth Built.  In the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, one can sometimes see them if one looks in just the right place at just the right time.  Even if the spirits choose not to appear, fans of the Great Game can often hear their voices.  Perhaps it is Munson, or Gehrig, or maybe even the Mick, who calls out to the fan hurrying to catch a train, “welcome home.”

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