>It was as if every pessimistic thought about the 2010 Mets was compressed down into a tiny cork center, wrapped tightly in yards of yarn, covered in two pieces of tightly stitched cowhide, and then smacked 345 feet to right field by David Wright.
At least, that’s how I saw it happen.
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I usually get excessively excited for Opening Day. I like the calling out of each player’s name and seeing who gets cheered (everyone but Oliver Perez) and who manages to earn themselves boos (Oliver Perez), and figuring out why (Oliver Perez was unbelievably awful last year). I like the pomp and the ceremony, the overly long versions of the National Anthem, the giant American flags, and the fighter jets flying overhead. I like seeing how much the Flushing faithful have changed since I last saw them.* I like hitters batting 1.000 after their first at bat and pitchers whose ERA rises to infinity after they fail to retire any batters. Look. David Wright’s OPS is 1.833 after one game – he’s going to be the MVP. Santana’s ERA is 1.50 – he’s going to win the Cy Young. Mike Jacobs is hitting .000 and has struck out in half his plate appearances – he’s going to be released. It may not be an officially recognized holiday, but let’s not kid ourselves: Opening Day is just as much of a holiday as the Fourth of July, only instead of officially getting off work or school, you just skip out.
*Oh my word has “The Jersey Shore” culture taken over. I counted dozens of The Situation clones wearing Met hats – is this cultural phenomena because of the show, or is the show because of the phenomena? Is it an endless cycle? What have we done?
But this year – I wasn’t as excited for Opening Day. I don’t think I was alone. There was no traffic on the ride down. Inside the park, there was a lackadaisical feel to the crowd, as if the on-field introductions were secondary to the distraction of finding out where the new Blue Smoke was hidden. People were still wandering around behind center field as the lineups were read out. The reopening of the stadium itself was the attraction, and not the two teams preparing to begin their seasons.
And maybe it was the generally rudderless feel that the organization gives off — Is this a punt year? Are they trying to win? Trying to lose? Something in between? Who’s in charge? What’s up with the bullpen? Why on earth is this – THIS – the Opening Day lineup Jerry Manuel chooses to embrace? — but it felt far more like an exhibition game than the beginning of baseball that counts.
Even the start of the actual game changed nothing. The oddest sign was the lack of a steady sea of claps building up to the first pitch. Few counted down the finals moments as the clock changed to midnight and rang in the new baseball year. Santana took the mound, threw strike one, and the 2010 season began without a drumroll. Maybe bagpipes would have been appropriate.
A batter into the game, Santana shook his hips and toyed with Cameron Maybin, who apparently has never seen or heard of this pitch, a changeup, before. Santana could have thrown a hundred straight, and I think Maybin would have guessed fastball every single time. It only took Santana three to strike him out. This is normally something to be cheered, but this first inning crowd was less inclined to show enthusiasm than the crowd for “Our American Cousin” on April 16, 1865. Why is Alex Cora hitting leadoff? Why?
It was like being at a lazy afternoon picnic during which a baseball game broke out.
But a half-inning later, the crowd was smacked awake when David Wright lifted a Josh Johnson offering into the right field stands. It was an outside fastball and Wright just reached out and smacked it – that’s the only way to describe it: he smacked it and he smacked us. A David Wright home run. To the opposite field. He smiled as he ran around the bases and finally the calender seemed to flip to 2010. Everyone woke up. We cheered. Hey! They might not go 0-162! Hope arrived fashionably late this Opening Day.
Of course, there were still reasons for pessimism to be found. Not that I was looking or anything. Mike Jacobs supplied the steady breeze from the cleanup spot, and Gary Matthews Jr. seemed to believe the fastest way to run down a fly ball is not with a direct line, but rather something more in the shape of the letter “S.” The bullpen is a curious mix converted starters and relievers that can’t throw strikes. And, of course, as much as he might want to, Johan Santana can’t start everyday.
Also, Alex Cora LED OFF for the 2010 Mets.
But Wright homered, Jason Bay tripled, Jeff Francoeur walked (!), and Santana pitched as well as he could with a fastball he couldn’t put where he wanted and a changeup he telegraphed. Luis Castillo didn’t try to bunt Cora over in the first inning. Francisco Rodriguez didn’t allow a grand slam. Some guy behind me started booing Jacobs by his third plate appearance. And the Mets won 7-1.
I couldn’t help myself. I started thinking crazy, hopeful things. Maybe Francoeur really will learn to recognize sliders. Maybe Gary Matthews Jr. just needed to get out of Anaheim. Maybe the Mets will release Mike Jacobs. Maybe Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran will return soon, and all the starting pitchers will work out, even Oliver Perez, and maybe in spite of all the bumbling up and down the organizational ladder, the Mets somehow can win 80-something games and sneak into the playoffs and then . . . who knows? What is this warm feeling? Is this what optimism feels like?
All because David Wright lifted one pitch out of the park. And all that was needed was a reason – just one – to believe.
1 down. 161 to go.