Friday, March 28, 2014

Opening Day ... let's play (better than last year)

       I love baseball a lot, more than most people, but Opening Day a national holiday? No, that's a bit much.
       Unlike Ozzie Smith, a Hall of Fame shortstop whose backflips became a charming part of the game's promotion, I am not doing backflips over this idea.
       Ozzie and a certain beer company identified closely with the St. Louis Cardinals were promoting a petition for people to present to The President to declare the game's Opening Day a national holiday. I don't  think this has been an overwhelming project, and POTUS probably has a few other things to do.
       But, Opening Day(s) -- the real ones, not the two showcase games in Australia a week ago -- is a fine day, a long-anticipated one for us baseball fans.
       Locally, it's Monday afternoon when the Texas Rangers are host to the Philadelphia Phillies. For me, it's Tuesday night when my team, the New York Yankees, play in Houston. Am I ready? You know it.
       It's been six months since I cared about a baseball game. Once the Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention last year -- only the second time in the last 18 years they missed the playoffs -- I paid scant attention to the game. I don't even know who won the World Series (just kidding, Red Sox fans).
       I've been counting down for weeks, and now it's down to a couple of days. I know from the familiar anxiety, nervousness, speculation. When it's time for the Yankees to play for real -- I don't care about the exhibition season -- it's time to focus.
        This devoutly following a sports team -- be it, in my case, the Yankees, Cowboys, Mavericks, LSU and Louisiana Tech or the Dutch national soccer team -- is a bit silly. It's not like I have any personal influence on any of it, or it greatly affects my life or my family's life.
         But it's what we do, it's what we sports fans do. It's what I've always done.
         I like it. Ah, that's too mild. I love it.
         Following the daily adventures of a team -- the games, the personnel moves, the drama, especially relishing in the wins and not sleeping after tough losses -- there's nothing in my sports world quite like it. For me, it's especially true in baseball.
          I don't follow the overall game as closely as I once did, or as many people do. Don't even watch all that much on TV anymore. I'm strictly a one-team guy, as I wrote on Opening Day two years ago ...
          And when it's like last year, there are days when I don't even want to think about it.
One last season for Derek Jeter, and let's hope it's a
 great one for the Yankees (photo from
          This will be my 59th season as a Yankees fan, but only my 58th Opening Day (I'll explain in a moment). This, as you might have heard, will be Derek Jeter's 19th Opening Day as a player with the Yankees' major-league team -- and his last.
           That is one year than Mickey Mantle had as a Yankees player. In my time as a Yankees fan, no player other than Mantle has been more popular, more of an icon, more of a leader than Jeter.
            So, yes, we hate to see him retire. But we also hate to see him play at a diminished level (as Mantle did for his last four seasons).
            The hope is that Derek, during this season when he turns 40, can stay healthy and play near the level he played two years ago (.316 batting average, 216 hits) before the broken ankle suffered in a playoff game.
             Recovering from that, and subsequent other leg injuries, limited him to 17 games last season, and it was a miserable season for him -- and for us.
             When the high point of the season comes on May 25 (12 games above .500), when you finish 12 games out of first place, when you never had much of a shot at a playoff spot (stayed in contention until the last couple of weeks, but not really close), that's a bad year. Especially for the Yankees.
              I had a friend suggest to me -- yesterday, in fact -- that maybe the Yankees can buy their way into a wild-card playoff spot this year. As I always tell people, the Yankees don't aim for a wild-card spot. We are accustomed to winning our division, our league, and the World Series.
              We know and expect, as Yankees fans, that our team will contend for a championship. Some franchises, and their fans, know they have little chance, year-in and year-out. You know who you are.
              I'm sure Derek Jeter will enjoy his "farewell" tour, as Mariano Rivera did last year. But he probably won't relish it as much as Rivera did; Jeter is more private than Mariano. And although I don't know the young man personally, I would guess he would much prefer to end his career in the playoffs and World Series. That's been his biggest stage.
             Mo would've like that, too, but last year's makeshift Yankees team didn't provide that for him, despite his own typical great season.
              Last year's team was the poorest run-producing Yankees team in two decades. But reinforcements -- yes, bought free agents -- will help cure that, and we'll be without another problem, the everyday drama brought by the highest-paid player in the game who is suspended for the season. I forget his name.
              (I'm fine with that suspension, in case you're wondering.)
              I became a Yankees fan in 1956, a few months after arriving in this country. Opening Day of that season, I was barely aware of baseball; it was a new sport to me. I was a soccer/bicycling/speedskating fan ... my Dutch heritage. 
              By the summer of '56, though, I was a baseball fan and a Yankees fan. Which explains the 59 years of fandom, but only 58 Opening Days. 
              It is better, on Opening Day, to be a fan of the defending World Series champions. I know that feeling ... 11 times. Or the defending American League champions (19 times). But we haven't been in that situation for the past four years.
              On Opening Day 1956, the defending World Series champions were our then-biggest rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was the only time in history that was the case (and my friend, Pete Alfano, and the long-suffering Brooklyn fans rightly relished it.
              This Opening Day, the honor belongs to our biggest AL rival. Great for them and their fans; their team had a magical season last year. Let's see if they can do it again because repeating is a difficult task (although the Red Sox did it ... 98 and 99 years ago).
               Of course, one franchise has won five consecutive World Series (1949-53) and  four consecutive (1936-39) and even three in a row (1998-2000). Only one team -- the Oakland Athletics, 1972-74 -- can match any of that. 
               Right now, I'd settle for an Opening Day victory. Then we'll see about the remaining 161 regular-season games.
               Don't know that Jeter can stay healthy or play like the younger Jeter. Don't know how Mark Teixeira will recover from his injury and surgery. Don't know how the free agents will work out, or if the older Yankees players can still perform at a winning level. Don't know about second base (good-bye, Robinson Cano) or third base or the bullpen, especially closer (without Mo). Still many questions to answer about this season's team.
               The answers come over a long, long season -- six months of glory and agony. Glad it's finally here again.
               It's not a national holiday. But it's time to play ball, and it feels just right.                


  1. From Tom Arceneaux: Yeah! Play ball!! And Go Yankees!!!!

  2. From Jim Oakes: Love your blog. Like you, I can't wait for opening day. My son, Matt, and I just returned from a father-son trip to the Cactus League. If you have never been to spring training there, you have to do it even though the Yankees train in Florida. The atmosphere around the ballparks in Arizona is incredible, the weather perfect, and you get to mingle up close with the ballplayers. In many ways, spring training baseball is better than the regular season.

  3. From Alan Stonecipher: Buy a wild-card berth? That sounds familiar.
    Good blog post. It's good when they play for real. Part of the game sucks now though because lifetime stats are all screwed up.

  4. From Maxie Hays: Well said, Nico. Enjoy the season.

  5. From Jimmy Russell: You picked a good year to become a Yankees fan. Who can forget Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series in 1956 against the hated Dodgers. As a kid I loved the Yankees, too. I followed Maris on his home run quest in 1961. CBS owned the Yankees, so we got to see them play every weekend in those days. I do not think of baseball and this time of year without thinking about our friend, coach, and good man, James Farrar. I miss him.

  6. From Thomas Aswell: I've been a Red Sox fan since Ted Williams played (he retired in 1960) and I followed every game that Yaz played, but I agree that Jeter is a class act, probably one of the classiest in baseball. I've managed the trifecta of hating the Yankees, admiring Jeter and loving the Red Sox for the entirety of his career with the Yanks. I'll miss him ... but not A-Rod. Go Red Sox!