It’s been an odd six weeks for this Met fan — derailed by tons of work, disenchanted with Port St. Lucie’s injuries and age, and disinclined to a level I hadn’t expected to forgive those caught up in the Mets’ September disaster. Relations between me and my favorite team had become somewhat chilly, and I was worried — for the first time in my adult life — that there might not be a thaw.
Last night I felt that maybe, just maybe, the ice was thinning. The Nationals’ park was indeed gorgeous, and left me thinking about our own date with the future, now just a year away. I found myself perking up at the sight of Lastings Milledge and Paul Lo Duca, and enjoyed mocking the Braves’ odd black-and-white looking road uniforms and early ineptitude. “Bobby Cox is in midseason form!” I crowed to Emily after the cameras caught him looking, post-error, like he’d just encountered a bad clam. (I was in midseason form, too: I fell asleep, lifted an eyelid to find Ryan Zimmerman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth, and turned off the game. Oops.)
But even if you don’t miss the best part, the opening-night game usually winds up being unsatisfying. It’s partially that it’s not your team, and encountering your team solely through scheduling notes and announcer chatter and players’ resumes makes the last night of winter all the more lonely. It’s also the dearth of other baseball storylines, of hearing what touted rookies and relocated veterans and comeback kids are up to in front of various big, bundled-up crowds and walls draped in bunting. Opening night offers only one storyline, for better or worse, and either way it’s like wolfing down an appetizer and then not getting a meal.
But I really knew I was OK when I woke up later in the night and couldn’t sleep — because I was worried about Johan’s first impression and Big Pelf’s prospects and Castillo’s knees and Delgado’s reflexes and Jose’s head and everything else my mind could seize on. And then when I found myself with a certain bounce in my step, scant sleep notwithstanding, while walking Joshua to school. (Attired, of course, in his new, slightly oversized Reyes t-shirt.) And the kid was fired up, too: At five, he’s now old enough to be told that Opening Day is a secular holiday. No afterschool today, I told him — I’ll pick you up at 2:45, and yes, that’s plenty of time to see the game.
So we got hot dogs and ice cream and I put on my own finery — black Mets road uni, Faith and Fear shirt (get your own here), stars-and-stripes Met hat — and we watched Cubs-Brewers until they put the tarp on and Diamondbacks-Reds until it was time for pregame and we cheered the Mets as they were introduced by the Marlins’ public-address guy and then finally Jose Reyes tramped up to home plate with his odd side-to-side gait and 2008 had finally begun. And immediately I was locked in, grimacing at Jose striking out and exhorting Castillo to work the count and sparing only an offhand thought for why I’d ever been worried.
Ah, the game. Johan Santana is good — we knew that, but this was the day of really discovering it, of appraising his arsenal and how coolly he commanded it, rising above brief trouble like that was just the final thing to check off in his preparations for the long haul of 2008. As important was seeing the Mets poke at Mark Hendrickson the first time through the order, then fall on him like wolves the second time. (When Angel Pagan and Ryan Church announced themselves with a double and single, I scrawled “Angel + Church = Heaven!”, which isn’t particularly clever but made me happy because, hey, it’s Opening Day.) After that the only sour note was the random strike zone (random for both sides, at least) and the briefly worrisome sight of David Wright flopping like a gaffed fish around third base.
SNY did a nice job, starting with the addition of HD on the road. (For which I suppose I must grudgingly thank the Yankees.) I liked that they didn’t duck the wreckage of last year, beginning with a hide-your-eyes montage of everything that went wrong in the second half of September — painful, but far better than pretending the whole thing didn’t happen, or that time began with Johan signing a contract. (Though that Mohegan Sun ad repurposing “Super Freak” may have me burying an ice pick into my ears by the Kentucky Derby.) Keith, dependably, delivered his first moment to made the SNY suits cringe: After Gary welcomed Hartford to the SNY family, Ronnie gamely said that he loves Hartford, only to have an incredulous Keith ask, “You do?” Joshua and I sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (and I wondered if I’d jinxed us by unthinkingly singing “the home team”) and I tried to explain all the things Hanley Ramirez had failed to do and then Heilman closed the door and Joshua declared “that’s a great beginning to the season!” Which it was.
And then the joy of finding out everything else that had happened, all the old names and new names and instant heroes. I mean, did you see Kosuke Fukudome hitting the first pitch he saw for a long double, then blasting a three-run homer to (briefly) save the Cubs’ bacon? Did you see Lastings Milledge getting to home plate one long stride ahead of Carlos Ruiz? (Break up the Nats!) Or the Indians and White Sox blasting away at each other like 18th-century warships? Or the Royals offering their fans at least one day of wild joy by shocking the Tigers? Or Carlos Gomez whacking the ball all around the Metrodome, giving Twins fans reason to embrace their new center fielder while honoring their old one? Or, to be less charitable, Tom Glavine going a lukewarm five innings and Yankee fans sitting in the rain for a while and going home? (Heh heh.)
Nothing revelatory there — just the pulse of life resuming its natural rhythms once again. Nothing extraordinary — except the routine miracles to be found in any day’s full slate of baseball games. Happy New Year!