Thinkin’ Tampa

When Chad Gaudin delivers his first pitch to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday afternoon, it will mark the 15th Spring Training Opener since the Yankees moved preseason prep facilities to Tampa from Fort Lauderdale in 1996. The opponent that March 1 was the reigning American League Champion Cleveland Indians, and things got off to an inauspicious beginning.

The game seemed unlikely to get started at all as a bruising several-day storm subsided and George Steinbrenner and at-the-time Yankee VP Joe Molloy helped the grounds crew as they struggled to prepare brand-new Legends Field for the debut. The rains finally stopped, pregame ceremonies were held, and Phil Rizzuto threw out the first pitch. The grounds crew would drag the infield to “YMCA” for the first time ever a few innings later. New Yankee Manager Joe Torre, or “Clueless Joe” as he was tabbed in the city’s tabloids, placed untested rookie Derek Jeter at shortstop, while sticking with a veteran battery of righthander David Cone and newly acquired Yankee backstop Joe Girardi. The kid at short promptly threw a dp grounder away, Girardi soared his first official Yankee throw into center field as Carlos Baerga stole second, and Albert Belle tomahawked a flat Cone slider over the fence in left for a 2-0 Indians first-inning lead.

Well, the Yanks turned that game around, and a lot of things have been very different ever since. They jumped 1995 Yankee Black Jack McDowell for three runs and a lead, and Gerald “Ice” Williams crowned the 5-2 victory with a two-run home run off one-time Yank Paul Assenmacher. Thirty-two days later Cone and the Yanks blitzed the Tribe 7-1 in the regular season opener in Jacobs Field, with soon to be Rookie of the Year Jeter making a since patented over-the-shoulder catch retreating into short left, and chipping in with a home run too.

This is not to say, of course, that Spring Training Opening Days are predictors for upcoming seasons. The team won Openers in 1999 before a World Championship, and in 2001 and 2003 when they would win two levels of playoffs and the AL pennant. And they fell to Albert Belle (again, with the White Sox this time) in 1997, the last Chisox campaign before they moved operations to Arizona. The Bombers would fall to Cleveland in the ALDS later that year. But the 8-5 loss to Detroit on February 27, 1998, their earliest Tampa Opener, hardly prefigured the 125-50 campaign and World Series Championship that would follow. Ramiro Mendoza was slapped around for seven hits and four runs in that one.

The 26th World Championship season in 2000 started poorly as well. After losing 9-7 to Toronto in nearby Dunedin in a game where the visitors bunched all seven of their runs into the ninth inning the day before, they fell to the Blue Jays in the home Tampa Opener on March 3, 3-2. The 4-0 revenge they extracted against the Blue Jays a year later on March 2, 2001 in Legends Field featured rbi’s from season stalwarts Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, and Scott Brosius, but long gone (now) d-Angelo Jimenez as well.

A road loss to the Astros in Kissimmee in 2002 prefigured both the Legends Field Opening Day 6-3 loss to Minnesota on March 4, 2002, with Mike Stanton suffering a four-run fifth, and the disappointing four-game ALDS loss to Anaheim exactly seven months and one day later. A year later on March 2, 2003, Erick Almonte stroked a walkoff single to score Rondell White to beat Tampa Bay 5-4 in the only season either player would do much in Pinstripes. Although the Yanks would come up short in the World Series to Florida that October, the seven-game ALCS victory over Boston that preceded it won’t soon be forgotten, and made the recently retired Aaron Boone a household name.

Even though March 5, 2004 saw the Yanks whip the Phillies 7-5 in Tampa behind Ruben Sierra and Jason Giambi home runs off Kevin Millwood, the good innings turned in by Kevin Brown and Donovan Osborne in that game can at least now be seen as forebodings as to how that season would end. [Hint: Osborne would be long gone, while Brown was unfortunately still on the team.] A year later, the Pinstripers would beat the Pirates in Tampa on March 2, 2005, but end up falling to Anaheim months later in the ALDS that year yet again.

Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano rbi’s and a Jason Giambi home run went for naught on March 2, 2006, as lefties Sean Henn and Mike Myers gave five runs back in a 6-3 loss to the Phillies. Seven months and three days later, 2010 Yankee recruit Curtis Granderson tripled off Mike Mussina to turn a Yankee lead into a loss, and the Yanks fell in the first round of the playoffs for the third of four times in the decade, that year to the Tigers. The March 1, 2007, 6-1 win over the Twins was totally satisfying, but the Yankee heroes of the day were starter Chien-Ming Wang and home run-hitting Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi; not one of that trio will be helping this team in 2010.

The 2008 Spring season brought the team’s biggest opening day blowout, but there is a huge asterisk. On February 29 (Leap Year), Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes surrendered just one hit among them over five innings as the home team piled up 11 runs. OK, it was against the University of South Florida, but the Yanks did what they could to even up the contest. To pitch the sixth inning they sent out Kei Igawa, who promptly allowed two walks, a hit by pitch, and a grand slam home run to the first six batters he faced; the Yanks won 11-4. In their first home game vs. a major league team two days later they tied Phillie 7-7, and months later they missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the Opening Day festivities on March 3, 2009, saw Derek Jeter and his teammates battle to a 6-5 win, but that is not good news. Jeter, you see, was playing in the uni of World Baseball’s Team USA that day, they were the visiting team, and they beat the Yanks largely on a rough four-run sixth inning surrenderd by Yankee youngster Eric Hacker. Months later, things would be much better for Jeter, the Yanks, and their fans, but that’s another story.

So now on Wednesday, the Yanks take an 8-6 Tampa Opening Day record into their initial 2010 game vs. the Pirates at now-named George M. Steinbrenner Field. There will be plenty to watch in Yankee camp regarding battles that will decide the makeup of their starting rotation, their starting and reserve outfield, and the front of their bullpen. But their long-term struggles aside, the Pirates are worth watching as well. Righthanders Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen came directly from the Yankees, as did outfielder Jose Tabata. And 2008 first-round pick, third baseman Pedro Alvarez came right out of the school system in Bronx, New York.

I don’t know who the Pittsbugh starter will be. But I know this: The World Champion 2010 Yankees will be sporting their Pinstripes for the first and only time of this year’s spring season. The sun will shine, or maybe it won’t. It will be warm, or at least warmer than in New York. And it won’t snow.

And I will be there.