Hope-ning Day

Bronx, N.Y., April 3, 2018; Yankees 11, Tampa Bay 4 — With apologies for my own human weakness (and you don’t want to see my scorebook), up against the very bad — not to say the worst — that Mother Nature can offer, what follows is not a report on today’s game. Rather, it’s a column I wrote a few days before the home opener in 2006. There was much on the sports tickers a week ago about the recent Yankee troubles on Opening Days. And although the numbers were accurate, the subject was just Opening Day, not specifically home openers. But with a huge Yankee cap tip to the glorious Didi Gregorius, and the eight rbi’s that carried the pinstripers to an 11-4 victory Tuesday, the focus here is on how good the Yankees have been in openers in the Baseball Cathedral on the south side of 161st Street, but also in the Palace across the street that saw its 10th opener this day.

Updating the numbers mentioned in the sixth paragraph that follows, the Yankees won the last three openers in the old place, bringing the record from 1983 through 2008 to 22-4! Granted, they’ve won just six of 10 in the new digs, but still, that’s 28-8 overall. And in those 36 home openers, the Yanks have outscored their opponents 202-129. I love Opening Day, whatever the weather conditions. I hope the following shows you just how much.

I will be attending my 23rd consecutive home opener on Tuesday, with the weatherman predicting a good, not great, day for baseball. Attending April ballgames is always a bit of a crapshoot. We sat through six innings of snow in 1996, and earned free tickets to Doc Gooden’s May no-hitter for our trouble. They played nine that day, with Andy Pettitte besting Kansas City’s Chris Haney. Three years later the 12-3 drubbing of the Tigers in a downpour was mercifully called after seven frames.

The weather is always a factor, as it was in the last one I missed, though I had tickets in hand and the day off from work on April 6, 1982. But the nine to 12 inches dumped on the New York area led to the cancellation of that game, and the four that followed. By the time the Stadium outfield was finally cleared for an Easter Sunday doubleheader opener, I was pressed into “family” service, and was unable to attend, breaking the mini-streak I had already begun.

So it fell to me to start a new streak in 1983, and to get the Yankee ship righted (as the team did lose both ends of that Opening DH the year before). But things did not start out very well. First, during the offseason the Yanks decided to shorten the distance to the power alley in left field, but inexplicably ran into trouble getting the project finished in time. They appealed to major league baseball to let them play their home opener in Denver of all places (there were no Colorado Rockies at the time, of course), and I owe mlb one to this day for turning that request down.

And so there were my brother and I on April 12, 1983, and seated in the third base side main boxes no less, as the Detroit Tigers came to town. It was cold, it was windy, it was damp. But I was where I wanted to be, and I did not let my spirits get down, or at least not until the 13-2 hammering the squad took got out of hand. But still, the game was played, and I was there.

For an avocation that had such difficult early years, you might think that Opening Days in Yankee Stadium have taken on a sort of love/hate aspect, but you would be wrong. Baseball was always for me a youngster’s game, and the youth inside of me just beams when a new season begins. We start each year tied for first, and although the nuts and bolts of the game, the exploits on the mound and on the bases, are intimately tinged with the dreaded chance of failure, they are also wed with the aura of possibility. The stands are filled with people, excited, chilly and, six months from the season’s denouement, filled with hope. It’s Hope-ning Day in ever sense of that word, one which I admittedly just made up. Any kid knows that although pitchers don’t go 30-0, that teams don’t amass 162-0 records, and even that the great Mickey Mantle didn’t hit 1.000; what cannot be denied is that, “It could happen.”

But I cannot prove here that I would still glow with “possibility” every April whatever the outcome, because it has been a great ride. The Opening Day tide turned long before the whole Bombers ship found its course, and the outcomes have become such things of joy. Including the horrendous pasting my team took at the hands of the Tigers that 1983 day, the 23-year record on Opening Days is an amazing 19-4. The 87 runs the opposing teams have collectively totalled in these contests compute to a semi-respectable four runs (almost) per game, but the total pales in comparison to the 143 the “Boys” have put up.

You would have to speak to the schedule makers about the opposition, by the way. The Kansas City Royals have so far played the part of the Washington Generals to the Yankees’ Globetrotters, serving as the guest four times and losing all four. One hopes they have rehearsed their part and the 20th opener win since ’83 is days away. The Rangers have been almost as accommodating, falling in three out of three, as have the Twins. After The Unit quieted David Wells and the Red Sox 9-2 last year, Boston is 0-2.

The lone (losing) appearance of the semi-newcomers Tampa Bay in ’04 is understandable, but what of the Angels and the Mariners, who have yet to appear? And if you counter that it’s a quirk of an unbalanced shcedule, my reply would be instantaneous: How is it that neither the Orioles nor the Blue Jays have filled that role in the last 23 years?

Andy Pettitte is the unquestioned Home Opener wins champ in this run, as he left the Bronx after the 2003 season with a 3-0 record. Jimmy Key was 3-0 in openers while playing for the Yanks, but only 2-0 in first games in Yankee Stadium. David Cone and Roger Clemens join Ron Guidry and Jeff Nelson as guys who have gone 1-1 in these games, but in Coney’s and the Rocket’s cases they endured the loss as visiting players, wearing other unis. Frank Viola is the only pitcher to have suffered the loss twice in the 19 Yankee victories.

Other Yankee winners include Phil Niekro, Dave Righetti, Charles Hudson, Rick Rhoden, Scott Sanderson, and Jim Abbott, along with relievers Eric Plunk and Mike Buddie. John Candelaria started and lost one as a Yankee, but former Yank Kenny Rogers lost wearing road grays, and not the white Pinstripes. Gladly, Kevin Brown did the same, with Texas back in 1994.

The weirdest date was, in effect, a one-game home stand in 1995 when the team played host to Texas on April 26 in a season delayed and shortened by the 1994 strike, then went on the road to KC. Texas, by the way lost two of their three by identical 8-6 scores. And the wildest game was a fairly recent one, when the Yanks outlasted the A’s 17-13 for David Cone on April 10, 1998, with Mike Buddie earning that “W.” None of the 10 guys who pitched that day are with those two teams anymore. Recent heroes include Pettitte, who allowed but three runs in the ’02 and ’03 starters combined; Jorge Posada with a homer and two rbi’s in the 3-1, 2004 win; and Hideki Matsui, whose grand slam represented the difference in 2003′s 7-3 win over the Twins, and who stroked three hits, scored three runs, and knocked in three last year against the Red Sox.

The 19-4 record over 23 seasons in openers in the House That Ruth Built takes on a special resonance when viewed through the prism of a new Yankee Stadium, scheduled to open for business in just three years. In the same 23 seasons, the Bombers have won just six of the 16 games in which they’ve played their first game on the road, so “mystique and aura” may have played an important part. And newer fans conditioned to the first-place finishes the Bombers have compiled in the last 10 of those seasons need to know that they finished fifth in the earllier 13 campaigns four times, and seventh (out of seven) once. The current home opener winning streak is eight, as the Yanks lost 3-1 to the A’s in 1997 in Mariano Rivera’s first year as closer. That game went 12 innings, with 2005 Yankee hero Aaron Small, of all people, copping the win.

Unofficial Yankee team member Robert Merrill (number 1 1/2) used to start them by singing America the Beautiful; and Eddie Layton tickled the ivories until retiring before the ’04 opener with the White Sox. With both guys having passed on, perhaps Ronan Tynan and Paul Cartier will fill in this time. Bob Sheppard and the “Voice” should be heard in ’06, and Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry bring Pinstriped pedigree to the coaching staff. It was a special moment when cancer survivor, Yankee hero, and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre threw the honorary first pitch to catcher Joe Torre before the 2001 tilt; it’s doubtful Mel will attend this year. Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Whitey Ford threw out ceremonial first pitches in 2004, with just Yogi doing the honors before the cold and the wet of the Sunday night tilt vs. the Red Sox last year.

Someday maybe it will be me. Hey, “It could happen.”