The opening day of baseball season is finally here. Well, the season already began for the New York Yankees, but the New York Mets take the field for the first time on Friday night. And no matter the prospects of your chosen team, everyone has at least a glimmer of hope and dreams of an exciting, contending season. Even Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates fans can throw reality out the window for a day and fantasize about a Cinderella season. It's the one day a year when we can all drift back, close our eyes and remember the first time we ever stepped foot in a major league stadium, and noticed how green the grass was, how hard the pitchers threw and how good the players actually were. Or we remember the thrilling ride of a season like 1996 or 2009 for the Yankees or 1986 or even 1999 and 2000 for the Mets. Or the one memorable moment that made us a baseball fan. We recall scintillating plays of opening days past, such as the monster home run Darryl Strawberry hit in Montreal oh so many years ago.
For a day, we can put away thoughts of multimillion-dollar debts and mismanagement by Met ownership or steroids or payroll imbalance or having to count on A.J. Burnett, and just enjoy what mysteries the coming 162 games will hold. And after a long hard winter (will it ever end?), there's the promise of warm weather and six months of living and dying with every pitch of the season. Whether one loves the game of baseball for the strategic intrigue, the sabermetric analysis, a beautifully pitched game or just to watch a few momentous long balls, we can all agree on one thing: Baseball is one of the joys of life, and we're ready to enter the daily ups and downs, the elation and heartbreak, the winning and losing, the cheering and the booing, all the emotions that the game brings out in us. So, fasten your seatbelts, and away we go . . .
(Along with the other top stories of the week in the world of New York sports.)
The Underdog: The Yankees started the season with a win just the way Joe Girardi drew it up in spring training (well, he probably didn't include frosty, 40-degree, rainy weather--March baseball in New York, another Bud Selig production): Six solid innings from CC Sabathia, right down the line with a spotless performance by the bullpen (Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera), a couple of bombs and some add-on runs. Even the slow starting Mark Teixeira is off to a roaring start, and the questionable-for-opening-day Curtis Granderson provided the clutch hit of the game with his go-ahead homer, not to mention a couple of acrobatic catches out in center. But with Sabathia playing the "Nobody believes in us" card, how did they even have a chance? The 2011 Bombers are now baseball's version of VCU. The one blemish: In a classic example of today's ballplayer consumed with showboating and "look-at-me" styling, Alex Rodriguez turned a potential triple into a double. And he did it in the sixth inning of a tie game, no less. Will they ever learn? The real test for the Bombers begins on Saturday, though, as Sabathia can't pitch every game.
The Real Underdog: I suppose it's fitting that the Mets' season kicks off on April Fool's Day. Everybody and their Aunt Ethel are prognosticating a last-place finish for the Mets. But after all the ongoing drama and headlines concerning the Wilpon mess, the Amazin's actually had a pretty good spring. The two Chris's (Young and Capuano) pitched extremely well and, more importantly, showed no signs of arm troubles. Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo were finally banished from Met-Land. Jose Reyes didn't come down with any obscure illnesses. Frankie Rodriguez remained calm, didn't allow a run and spent a month flying under the radar. Even Carlos Beltran will amazingly be in Friday's opening-day lineup (we think). The one blemish is Jason Bay's last-second trip to the disabled list. If that's the worst of the Met injuries this season (discounting Johan Santana, of course), though, the team will be lucky. But is that just the first sign of a here-we-go-again season? Let's hope not. Things are a lot more fun around here when the local teams are successful--even if you hate them.
Buckling Down: A few days ago I was giving my six-year-old daughter a fatherly talking to (it was time for her yearly performance review), and I told her that she wasn't living up to her full potential. She knows what's expected of her--cleaning up after herself, not talking back to her parents, not arguing about every little thing--and what she's capable of doing, yet she occasionally abstains from her responsibilities. As I was chatting I realized I could have been speaking to Carmelo Anthony. If you replace "cleaning up after herself" with "playing defense," "not talking back to her parents" with "putting the team ahead of yourself" and "not arguing about every little thing" with "show some leadership and stop sulking," that's just the advice that Anthony needs. After two losses to start the week, the New York Knicks, and especially Anthony, finally played like they're capable of in Monday's win over Orlando. They weren't great, the game wasn't pretty and they may have gotten some breaks at the end with a few dubious calls by the refs, but they finally buckled down and put in the effort. And that's half the battle right there--actually trying. Anthony clamped down on D, did the little things even when he wasn't scoring and then during the second half showed his leadership by taking over the game. Talent alone won't get them anywhere, and with their roster shortcomings they have to put in more of an effort than their opponent on most nights, which is something that's been sorely lacking. In the following game against the New Jersey Nets, the Knicks were back to their old effortless selves in the first half, but they learned their lesson in the nick of time to edge out the Nets for a victory. Anthony led the way as in the previous win. And effort and defense were the keys to the victory once again.
Playing Out the String: Sometimes the impossible is just that--impossible. The New Jersey Devils' miracle turnaround ended with a whimper, with losses to Pittsburgh and Buffalo over the weekend. Now their stunning run over the last few months becomes a mere footnote to a lost season. The standard the Devil franchise has set for itself is high, with playoff and, usually, Stanley Cup aspirations every single season. So this year has to be viewed as a disappointment. Weren't they supposed to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, competing with the Penguins and Flyers? Instead they'll be lumped in with all the rest of the bottom dwellers. As for the Islanders (who lost to the Flyers and Devils this week before hammering the Rangers on Thursday--you know it's a magical night when Trevor Gillies scores a goal) and the Nets, they've taken strides compared to last season, and have solid, talented pieces to build around. Of course, the Devils do also, but they weren't in rebuilding mode like the other two teams were. Or those scrappy underdog Yankees.