Somewhere between five and six o’clock yesterday, the rain let one, final curtain unfurl, then disappeared. All that was left was the setting sun, a few, fast-moving clouds painted red by the fading light, and baseball. Yankee Stadium would have a beautiful evening for its final Opening Day, its replacement taking its seat in the background, respectfully.
Walking back to my office shortly before introductions, the city buzzed with a sense of renewal. People could be seen crossing Fifth Avenue with Yankees caps and jerseys faithfully adorned, smiles on their faces, and a strut to their step. Something feels different about this season, I thought. All the pieces are falling into place.
Rookies, veterans, health.
A new manager, conditioned athletes, a sense of purpose.
Could this finally be a team that feels like it has something to prove? All that talent, all that money, but now, all that chemistry.
It’s time to dominate again, isn’t it?
Sometime after 7:05 P.M., Chien-Ming Wang took the hill to do battle with one of baseball’s best gunslingers, Doc Halladay, a pitcher who wears his emotions on his sleeve, which is to say, a pitcher much unlike Chien-Ming Wang. As the Yankees’ workhorse grooved his first fastball in there for a strike, the emotions of a city were enough to fill any player’s sleeves on that field. Light bulbs flashed, a cheer erupted, and a season began.
This game was destined to be a classic before it was ever played, wasn’t it? Pitching, defense, and timely hitting – that’s what wins championships right? Well, all three were on display last night at the Stadium.
In the top of the first, Wang had runners on first and second with one out, and a little too quickly it was the 2007 ALDS again, when the Yankees’ de facto ace couldn’t get through three innings of two different starts against the Cleveland Indians. Things got quiet and uneasy amongst the crowd, unsettled in their seats as they were, but all of the anxiety quickly turned to joy when Robinson Cano floated up to meet a soft line drive, then doubled off the runner on first. Such is the game of baseball, where there is no script, no predictability, and definitely no safety net. Everything turns on the next pitch.
In the bottom of the inning, A-Rod chased home Bobby Abreu from first base with a scorching double to the wall in right-center, a good sign that the reigning MVP is coming back for more. The Blue Jays then proceeded to score two runs over the next several innings, using a highly-choreographed string of broken-bat singles and swinging bunts off of Wang. Things could have gotten much worse for the Yankees in the fourth inning, when Wang’s sinker began its inevitable rise, if not for the acrobatics and energy of the young centerfielder, Melky Cabrera.
On back to back plays in the top of that frame, each worthy of their own ESPN “webgem”, the Melk-Man delivered the enduring images from this game. On crushed ball number one, he glided effortlessly back to the wall in right-center, then leapt, caught, and crashed into the wall with a resounding thud. No problem. On crushed ball number two, Melky raced to his right at full tilt, then lunged, caught, and crashed into the damp earth, sliding past Damon to a stop in left field. This was the third out of the inning, and as Cabrera brushed off the sticky, green blades of grass on his way back to the dugout, the Cathedral was rocking with approval.
And just for good measure, Melky put together the best at bat of the night against Halladay, a ten-pitch battle in the bottom of the sixth that ended with a towering shot down the right field line. As attending fans rose to their feet and viewers at home undoubtedly leaned toward their sets, a gentle gust from the baseball gods carried the ball just past the glove of a leaping Alex Rios, and the game was tied at two. Oh what a night for the Melk-Man, whose subsequent curtain call was later described as a “straight scissor-kick” by Giambi, who was clearly amused with his teammate’s display of energy. Just another sign of chemistry, I guess.
And speaking of Giambi, he was scooping at first, shovel-passing to Jeter, snatching line drives, and pausing on the base paths with the best of them, this last tactic ensuring the Yankees would score the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning, as it kept the team out of a crucial, rally-killing double-play. I guess whatever Girardi had to say this past off-season resonated with the thirty-seven-year-old Giambino, who looks five years younger and played ten times better last night. Little things make all the difference in tight baseball games, and Girardi’s small-ball influence was evident in the Yankees play all evening.
A three-two lead was handed to Joba in the eighth inning, and the stage was set. After experimenting with his curveball through the first few batters, Alex Rios reaching first via a base on balls then stealing second, Joba reared back and hucked three patented fastballs by the aging Frank Thomas. He spun, he fist-pumped, he screamed, and the Stadium shook with the kind of pure octane that only a young, confident, and charismatic flame-thrower can bring to the table. With Chamberlain cemented in the set-up role for the time being, the Yankees finally have that killer one-two punch in the bullpen, much like they did in ’96 with Rivera and Wetteland. They have shortened the game again, and the value of this fact can not be over-stated.
Taking Mo completely for granted, as we must in the face of such efficiency and perfection, Rivera was Rivera in the ninth. When it was all said and done, he walked the game ball over to his ex-battery mate and new skipper, Joe Girardi, and put the rock in his hands. “This one’s for you, Joe, the first of many”, and the game’s best closer shook the man’s hand.
Short, simple, sweet – for the new Yankees manager and for their fans alike.
Something looked familiar to us all on that field last night, didn’t it? Maybe it was a team that played like it had something to prove. In shape, confident, and ready to do what it takes.
Young Joba said it best in his post-game interview: “Pressure is what you make of it.” For the first night of the last year of old Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees fed off the example of their red-hot star and got their swagger back, winning a classic, tight ballgame against one of the League’s finest pitchers.
Like I said before, all the pieces are falling into place.
And just in time… right Cathedral?