Opening Day (Part II)

My post on last year’s Opening Day of Citi Field is here.  Today we continue our Opening Day festivities with instant-recollections of yesterday.

This past Sunday the wonderful columnist George Vecsey had a not-so-wonderful column in The Times.  Here’s the opening:

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  That’s what I would write if I felt like paying $395 for a commemorative brick outside the Mets’ ballpark.

Now, I love me some George Vecsey (I devoured his marvelous history of the game, simply titled Baseball and even read his volume of collected ’86 columns, A Year in the Sun, which may be the most damning evidence yet that I simply have too much time on my hands).   But here we were, on the day before our true spring holiday, and Vecsey was declaring it all ‘irrelevant,’ meaningless for we New Shea Stadium faithful.  Well, gee, anything else you want to spoil, good sir?  You know the Easter Bunny’s a fictional creation, right?

Now, Vecsey has a point or two:  The last, by my count, four seasons have been dismal, trying times for fans of the ugly stepchild of New York baseball.  To anyone who might need a brief, unhappy recap:  In ’06 we came within one game of heading to the misnamed World Series, thus marring Endy’s amazin’ catch (at the time my only consolation was that surely the NL representative was to be steamrolled by Detroit.  How’d that work out?);  in ’07 we were denied the post-season on the last day of the season, despite a prior brilliant performance by Johan Santana (who needs a cool nickname), as poor Tom Glavine suffered a meltdown;  in ’08 the Mets were again eliminated on the last day of the season, though that wasn’t the story: it was losing a staggering 10 of their final 17 games which caused Mets fans to literally boo their own beloved mascot after the final game;  and last season…  well, last season the Mets had the second highest payroll in the majors and yet, decimated by every injury possible, racked up 92 losses.

So, yes, Vecsey had a point.  Or several.  But Opening Day is a celebration, a rite of spring, a welcome back to our very favorite sport, a way of bidding winter farewell and setting in for a summer of long, warm days with the voice of Howie Rose on the radio.  Opening Day is no time to abandon hope; there’ll be plenty of time for that later in the season.

Sports Illustrated picked the 2010 Mets to finish an egregious fourth place, beyond their Opening Day opponents and unlikely tormentors the Florida Marlins (a team that had to be told to increase their payroll).  One reason for this may be that in the same issue, its always-excellent baseball preview, SI does a story termed ‘War Stories,’ in which they basically rank current MLB players by value, and amongst the roughly 80 players profiled only new left-fielder Jason Bay merits inclusion, and that’ll end next season when his salary skyrockets to 16 million bucks.  (Is there some management rule that even if you have a lot of moolah to play with, you can’t go after smart, small-market players, Omar?)

But I digress:  Opening Day is all about hope.  I mean, my God, if ‘Sweet Lou’ (there’s a nickname!) Piniella can declare the Cubs “… on the verge of the World Series,” we can damn well all hope.  And so with hope in my heart I headed out to New Shea yesterday morning.  Alone.

Alone, you say?  Alone?  How sad.  Well, everyone offered B.S. excuses:  “I have to work,”  “I have kids!”,  “I’m a Yankee fan,” “We’re in our thirties, Wally, we can’t just play hooky to watch a baseball game.”  In the words of a famous White Sox fan, Yes we can.  I scalped a ticket off the Internet and drove out to Queens, NY with WFAN as my driving companion.

It was a truly beautiful, sun-streaked Monday in the city, and as I had several hours before the game I watched B.P.  (bombs!, D-Wright was hittin’), scarfed down a hot dog with all the fixings and a Hoegaarden (yes, I’m a snob) before noon, and read The Times (ditto).  Before entering the stadium I was also sure to visit The Brick of our old friend, and took a moment to think about him, and to e-mail my father, who I was sorry wasn’t at the game with me.

Soon enough it was game time, the first pitch of the spring, something we wait all damn winter for!  The afternoon got off to a truly New Yorkesque start with the hometown crowd booing the Mets’ trainers, as if those sorry folks were responsible for the bad luck that had befallen the team last year (and this:  starters Jose Reyes, Carols Beltran and Daniel Murphy were all out of the lineup).  That was quickly followed by the introduction of the manager, Jerry Manuel, who was announced as “… being in his second full season.”  And probably last, I cynically thought to myself.  This was all followed by the appearance of onetime Met Daryl Strawberry to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, and really, what better ballplayer to embody the franchise?  (With apologies to Mr. Tom ‘Terrific’ Seaver.)  I mean, when you think Strawberry, you think so much talent, so much potential…  and so much squandered, sadly.

But then, the great Johan Santana, the ace, took the mound to the strains of Santana, and something wonderful happened:  Baseball came roaring back!  Santana pitched 6 solid innings, giving up only one run on four hits and notching five K’s.  David Wright (who needs a monster year for the ballclub to improbably compete) bashed a first inning two run homer, that brought out the current Apple.  Newcomers Jason Bay (with a triple) and Rod Barajas (with an RBI) both contributed, and while the Mets squandered a fourth inning bases loaded opportunity, they also scored seven runs on the day.  Fernando Nieve pitched two scoreless innings of long relief, and Frankie ‘K-Rod’ Rodriguez closed it all out.

Sure, it was The Fish, and they weren’t playing good ball (two dropped outfield flies), and temporary first baseman Mike Jacobs got The Golden Sombrero (0-for-4).  But it was also Marlins ace Josh Johnson, and he got knocked out in the fifth.  And so on a sunny afternoon at, yes, Citi Field, on the first afternoon home opener in that ballpark’s young history, the Mets beat the Marlins, 7 to 1.  “Put it in the books!” Howie Rose got to yell.  Hope 1, Cynicism 0.

Afterwards I spent a pleasant half-hour at the new Mets Hall of Fame and Museum (it drew snickers amongst those who thought it was a day late and a dollar short for a ballpark that’s long on National League, NY baseball history but short on the orange-and-blue).  But I’m here to tell you:  It’s well done.  Interactive exhibits (you can listen to your favorite broadcasters call various franchise highlights!); the ’86 World Series trophy; lots of game used memorabilia, including the first ball used in that emotional, first post-9/11 game back; and plaques honoring Mets icons over the years–  it’s a fitting tribute to a team whose motto is ‘Ya Gotta Believe.’  I also strolled around outside the stadium, looking at the new Amazin’ Moments bricks in the Citi Field Fanwalk, as people hurried back to their lives, confident and relieved baseball is back.

And baseball is back.  It’ll be a long season, 161 more games, and that’s what I love about the rhythms of The Game.  It’s the soundtrack to the spring and summer, it’ll be Gary, Keith and Ron on the TV and Howie Rose on the radio to guide us through yet another season of high and low moments.  And maybe the season will end terribly, as they seem to these days, or maybe it’ll be surprisingly competitive, or, more likely, it’ll just be:  The Phillies’ll win the division, the Braves and the Marlins will compete for the wild card, and we’ll just play ball.  But yesterday, that was enough.  And it’s no time to abandon hope.

And then last night my father and I stayed up late and watched Jimmy Chitwood blow the shot and deny Hickory the ’52 Indiana State Championship.  No, I kid, Good job, Butler Bulldogs!  It was a hell of a day for sports.

This afternoon the great George Vecsey responded to the above blog post.  I think we can all agree he’s a class act:

fair enough.

the difference is that I don’t claim to be a fan…  I love baseball, understand hope, (if you’ve been reading my babble for decades) but once in a while I have to think like a journalist and say, the Mets have been awful and I think they are going to be awful again…so I said it.

but you saw my column today, which means I succumb easily to exactly what you’re saying.

but I reserve the right to be a journalist, not a fan




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