Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Glories of Opening Day

Tom Seaver delivering on an Opening Day for the Mets.

My buddy Will insists that Opening Day of the baseball season should be a national holiday.

Of course he’s absolutely right.

It’s a national day of optimism, when all teams start with a clean slate and have a chance at the pennant. It means spring is here, or here in Michigan it means at least spring has the potential to arrive within the month. Maybe.

I’ve been blessed to attend a number of Opening Day games in my life. Here are some of the favorites:

April 5, 1975 -- Mets 2, Phillies 1: My Grandmother lived with us when I was growing up, and she was a big baseball fan. We’d go to a couple games a year, and this year we made it to Opening Day — my first one. I had just turned 11 two days before and was in full boyhood baseball hero mode.

Tom Seaver, my hero, was pitching. We sat on the third-base side because Seaver’s a right-hander, and his back would be to the first-base side when he pitched and we wanted the best view.

That was a big winter for the Mets, having traded fan favorite Tug McGraw to the Phillies and acquired all-or-nothing slugger Dave Kingman from the Giants and Joe Torre in a trade from the Cardinals.

My grandmother completely spoiled me and we were at the game as the gates opened. She bought me a yearbook and program and as we headed to our seats I saw McGraw by the dugout being interviewed by the former Met Ron Swoboda, who was a sportscaster for one of the television stations.

I remember running down to the front row to watch. It was my first time being that close to a major league player in uniform. I remembered from Swoboda’s 1973 baseball card — I could recite all the little cartoons on the backs in those years — that his nickname was "Rocky." I mustered up the courage to say "Hi Rocky," and Swoboda looked up and waved. Contact with a baseball player! Yes! it didn’t get much better.

The game was awesome, a pitcher’s duel between Seaver and Steve Carlton, each throwing a complete game. Kingman hit his first homer as a Met and Torre drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

To show how much times have changed, Baseball-almanac.com -- a great site -- lists the attendance that day at just 18,527. And that’s before the rise of the Yankees and the Mets were still the toast of the Big Apple.

April 5, 1983 -- Mets 2, Phillies 0: Tom Seaver’s return the Mets! I was in college by now and some of my friends at the college newspaper also were Mets fans. To celebrate my birthday we all decided to go see the Mets and Seaver. It was one of the first times driving in to the city and going to a game without parental assistance.

Being college kids, we didn’t think about details like getting tickets ahead of time and we were stunned to find the game was sold out. After walking around the stadium a couple times in shock, we walked up to the subway platform outside the right-centerfield seats where you could get a decent view of the action.

My friends humored me and we stayed up there for most of the game. Again it was Seaver against Steve Carlton. Neither team scored through six, and Doug Sisk came in to pitch the final three innings to get the win.

It was an emotional day for a Mets fan, and especially a Seaver fan. He’d been run out of New York in 1977 by the previous regime, and the new owners sought to heal those wounds by bringing Seaver back. It was a year-long lovefest, and I remember seeing the "Welcome Home Tom" banner from the subway platform.

Seaver's 1984 Topps card has always been one of my favorites because the photo was taken on that Opening Day -- you can tell by the bunting in the background.

April 5, 1993 -- Marlins 6, Dodgers 3: My parents also spoil me. They had moved to Florida a couple years earlier, and we were all excited that a major league team was coming to Miami.

I had come oh-so-close to getting tickets to the team’s first-ever game over the phone. I somehow got through right as they went on sale, and was put on hold. I figured I could keep typing — I was working — if I switched to the new headsets we got a couple days before. I heard a "click" and the dialtone — and my colleagues heard something unpleasant coming from my cubicle. Dooh! It was 40 minutes before I could get through again. The first game was sold out, but I could buy four upper deck seats to the second game, which I snapped up.

A couple days later my mother called and said my Dad found a way to get a ticket for Opening Day. It was expensive, but it could be my birthday present. I told her that was really kind, but that was expensive and not to worry about it. I called her back about a half hour later and said "Go for it!" She knew I would.
The Marlins take the field for the first time.

What a fantastic day! Brilliant Florida sunshine for an out-and-out celebration of baseball. Charlie Hough was the Marlins’ starter, throwing against Orel Hershisher.

Wearing my cool teal cap, I was in prime souvenir mode, buying official first-day programs and a way-cool foam rubber Marlins hat.

Virtually every movement on the field was a franchise "first" and brought cheers. Scott Pose, who beat out Chuckie Carr for the starting centerfield job in spring training, was the first batter, Bret Barberie for the first hit and Benito Santiago scored the first run.

I’ve been privileged to attend a number of historic baseball games, and the first day for the "Fish" is up there at the top of the list

April 13, 1993 -- Tigers 20, Athletics 4: Two Opening Days in one year! The Tigers started on the road that year, and I got home from Florida in time to get to Tiger Stadium for my second Opening Day there. The Tigers were pretty awful through the 1990s, and apparently well into the 2000s. So to see this offensive outburst against a decent A’s team brought some hope and cheer to D-Town.

I had a streak of Tiger Opening Days going for a while. I was able to link some to work, attending in 1995 to interview fans about the first game back after the player’s strike and again in 1999, the last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium.

My mission for both games was to find people from the Flint area for the story. It’s actually not that tough to pick out Flintites in a crowd of 55,000. A lot of them wear UAW jackets that list the location of their local, and a lot of high school kids wear their school jackets. The upper deck in Tiger stadium wasn’t that far from the lower seats, and I learned that I could go to the upper deck railing, look down and see the backs of a lot of fans below then run down and ask them questions for the story.

It also didn’t hurt to have some plants among the spectators. I knew our friends Tom and Glennie would be attending the openers, and I’d get their seat locations ahead of time, guaranteeing that I’d have at least some local fans quoted in the story.

I haven’t been to a major league opening game since then, but we’ve attended most of the openers for the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ Midwest League team here in Grand Rapids. The Caps are hoisting this championship banner at this week’s opener and we’ll be there!

And go to Will’s Web site -- Baseballtruth.com -- and sign his petition to get Opening Day named a national holiday.


Tony Hartsfield said...

And just what is the Mets' magic number today?

John said...

I am ashamed of my Braves. 9-0 against Marlins last night. Poor Smoltz. He said he wished he had had a mulligan and do over again. Well maybe they will come out tonight. Beckett wont be pitching.

Mike McMillin said...

After reading Johns comment above, I just wonder how he is feeling today? 15 K's and the Braves lose the game. Willie finally got to smoke the cigar that Paizza gave him.

John Murray said...

I remember going to that Marlins Game with you and Dad. It was very cool