Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Opening Day: When Everybody Is In First Place

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
-- A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"

Some of you knew Bart Giamatti as the Commissioner of Baseball, all too briefly in 1989, when the stress of the Pete Rose gambling scandal drove him to a heart attack and death at age 51; and, for 2 years before that, as President of the National League. Some of you may know that he was the father of actor Paul Giamatti.

Some of you may be aware that, before he was NL President, he was previously President of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, that often-fine, but often-troubled city that stands as a "Romulan Neutral Zone" between the New York Tri-State Area and New England.

Standing on the New Haven Green, surrounded by Yale campus buildings, churches, courthouses and stores, you can almost hear the echoes of the old Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Fenway Park -- and even Braves Field, if you want to listen deeply enough.

Go 2 miles to the west of the Green, and you can watch the New Haven County Crosscutters of the Can-Am League, a league that, this season, includes the 2 teams based in Essex County, New Jersey: The Newark Bears (from 1999 until 2010 playing in the Atlantic League) and the Montclair State University-based New Jersey Jackals. The league also includes a new team, the Rockland Boulders, which will open its new ballpark in June in Ramapo, New York. Yale Field has hosted Yale baseball since 1926 and is one of the oldest ballparks still in use. From 1994 to 2003, the New Haven Ravens played there, in the Double-A Eastern League. I saw the Trenton Thunder play there twice, winning in 1995 but losing in 1999 (on the same day that David Cone pitched his perfect game). The West Haven Yankees played at a different park from 1972 to 1979, one which is now gone.

Go 1 mile to the south of the Green, and you'll be at New Haven Union Station, and on a weekend morning you can see fans getting on Metro-North to head south to New York for the Yankees or Mets, or on Amtrak to head north to Boston for the Red Sox.

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Bart Giamatti has often seemed right: Baseball does break the heart, many times. As a native of South Hadley, in Massachusetts' Berkshires, and a lifelong Red Sox fan, he knew that better than most. He wrote that passage on October 2, 1977, just as a season came to an end with the Yankees, trailing the Red Sox in the American League Eastern Division most of the season, finished 1st, with the Sox tied for 2nd with the Baltimore Orioles.

Exactly one year later, on October 2, 1978, came the Boston Tie Party and Bucky Dent. Giamatti's thoughts on that game are, as far as I know, unrecorded. Mine are familiar to anyone who knows me or has read this blog: As the great soccer player (and not-so-great manager) Kevin Keegan would say, I loove it, loove it.

But since I've broached the subject of soccer, particularly the English version, I'm reminded of another voice, that of Nick Hornby. In his screenplay for the film version of his book Fever Pitch -- which, of course, was made into a baseball-themed movie, one Yankee Fans would consider a horror film or a disaster flick because of the way it ends -- he writes eloquently of why we fans do the things we do:

Football has meant too much to me, and come to represent too many things... I've been to far too many games, and spent too much money, fretted about Arsenal when I should have been fretting about something else, and I've asked too much of the people I love. Okay, I accept all of that. Perhaps it's something you can't understand unless you belong... You're at the center of the whole world... The truth is, it comes again and again. There's always another season. You lose a cup final in May? Well, there's the 3rd round to look forward to in January. It's actually quite comforting, if you think about it.

I've rooted for a lot of teams:

* Arsenal Football Club since 2008 -- admittedly, a brief time in the history of a club that goes back to 1886, has won the League 6 times in my lifetime, including 3 "Doubles," won the FA Cup when I was 9, and would have thrilled me (and driven me crazy) to no end if I'd grown up 35 miles outside of London instead of 35 miles outside of New York.

* The New York Red Bulls since 1996, when they were started as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, although I've only been going to games since 2009, with my belated, American-view-hindered discovery that soccer is NOT a hideously boring game that ends 1-0 if you're lucky, 0-0 if you're not.

* East Brunswick High School's sports teams since 1984, when I arrived as a student.

* The New Jersey Devils since 1982, Day One for them.

* The New Jersey Nets since 1977, when the once-and-future New York Nets moved from the Nassau Coliseum to the Rutgers Athletic Center, later to the Meadowlands Arena (under its many names) and now to the Prudential Center, presumably only as a 2-year way station until the Barclays Center opens in Downtown Brooklyn. Will I still root for them? Right now, I'm thinking 80-20 No, no matter who they bring in.

* Rutgers University's sports teams pretty much since I've been aware of them, probably also around 1977.

* And, of course, the New York Yankees, also since 1977, when I was first old enough to watch them on television and "get" the game.

I haven't felt it with Rutgers and the Nets as intensely as with the others. I still feel as though my Goonerdom is incomplete since I haven't watched Arsenal play live. And my NFL interest has varied, and the less said about me as a pro football fan, the better. I have watched the New York Giants and Jets with interest, but their refusal to change their names to "New Jersey" after moving here has led me to hold a grudge against both. That grudge has seriously diminished in the last few years, as the Giants did the world a favor by derailing the New England Patriots' bid to cheat their way to 19-0 in Super Bowl XLII, and my sister (I think because her office owns season tickets and has offered them to her) becoming a Jets fan, making me a Jet-fan-in-law, I suppose. (But her significant other is a Giants fan.)

But with the Yankees, the Devils and EBHS, I have belonged. I understand. I feel it.

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And there are few days when a fan feels it more than on Opening Day. It's the day when every team, whether they're a storied, wealthy franchise like the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals -- or a troubled, cash-struggling team like the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals -- can look at the standings and say, "See? We're all equal. Like all 30 teams, we're Number 1. And that's the truth!" And on Opening Day, that truth holds for a little while longer. And if you win on Opening Day, then it holds for another day.

For a lot of teams, that hope doesn't last long. For some, it dissipates within a week. For others, it lasts a little longer: There's usually at least one team that makes you look at the standings and say, "Where did they come from?" The manage to hold 1st place throughout April and into early May, and every once in a while they hold it into, inevitably, at some point before the All-Star Break, the wheels do come off, and they fall back into their usual mediocrity.

Still, every once in a while, there's a team that defies expectations. In 1967, the Red Sox started the season as, supposedly, 100-to-1 odds to win the Pennant, but they did. In 1969, nobody figured either the Mets or the Chicago Cubs would make a run at the NL East title, but they did; the Cubs went into a September Swoon, the Mets completed their Miracle. In 1991, the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves both did a worst-to-first, and faced each other in an amazing World Series that took the Twins until the 10th inning of Game 7 to win. In 1993, the Philadelphia Phillies did the same, held off the Montreal Expos for the NL East title, outfoxed the Braves for the Pennant, and pushed a much better Toronto Blue Jays team to a Game 6 before falling.

Tomorrow, March 31, 2011, is Opening Day. Rain is being predicted for the Northeast, and games might not be played. Even if they are played, it might be cold.

No matter. To hell with what the groundhogs say: Spring starts tomorrow. As Bonnie Tyler would say, "Forever's gonna start tonight." And, as John Fogerty would say, "We're born again, there's new grass on the field."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILFWDwVJQxs

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Hours until the Yankees' Opening Day: 16, tomorrow afternoon, at Yankee Stadium II, against the Detroit Tigers. Weather permitting, of course.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: Actually, they're playing right now, at home against the New York Islanders, and they're winning 2-0 after 2 periods. They host the Flyers this Friday night. It's appropriate that they would play the Broad Street Bozos and their fool fans on April Fool's Day. Their last regular-season game against a local rival is a week from Saturday, against The Scum at Madison Square Garden. Then they close the next day, at home against the Boston Bruins. The Playoff dream looks over for this season, the 1st miss in 15 years and only the 2nd miss in the last 22 (if you don't count the cancelled 2004-05 season, that is).

Days until the Red Bulls play again: 3, Saturday night, home to the Houston Dynamo.

Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: 9, a week from this Friday, at Fenway Park.

Days until the Red Bulls play another "derby": 10, a week from this Saturday, against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. They next play their biggest long-term rivals, D.C. United, on Thursday, April 21, at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. And they next play the team that SHOULD be their biggest rival, due to the whole New York-New England thing, the New England Revolution, on Saturday, June 11, at Red Bull Arena.

Days until the next North London Derby: 21, Wednesday, April 20, at White Hart Lane.

Days until Derek Jeter collects his 3,000th career hit: 76 (estimated to come on June 14). About 11 weeks.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 155, on Thursday, September 1. Just 5 months. The game is home to North Carolina Central. Not UNC, a.k.a. Chapel Hill. Not N.C. State. North Carolina Central. They're in Durham, almost certainly set up as a black people's counterpoint to once-segregated Duke University in the same city. This is another chance for RU to play a historically black college (as we've recently done with Howard, Morgan State and Norfolk State), give them a huge payday, rack up a lopsided win, and hear their great band while booing our own usually good band for being inadequate by comparison. Keep in mind that, for TV reasons, most of Rutgers' game times, and even dates, are tentative.

Days until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 163, on Friday night, September 9, and the opponent and location are TBD.

Days until the Rutgers-Army football game at Yankee Stadium: 226.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 237.

Days until the last Nets game in New Jersey: 389 (estimated).

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 485.

Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 794 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 916 (estimated).

Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 1,039.

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,536 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,650 (estimated).

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