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The thrills of Opening Day


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SAN DIEGO -- Opening day is the first robin of the spring. It is hope and warmth and crocuses pushing up through the snow. The smell of the barbecue blowing through the screen door, a mitt hanging from the handlebars of your bicycle as you pedal toward the park.

It is a clean slate, a blank page, a fresh start. The promise of better things to come. And this year, at this particular time in our lives, who doesn't need that?

"It never gets old," San Diego manager Bud Black was saying Monday -- even with Manny Ramirez lurking in the opposing lineup -- before Los Angeles knocked off the Padres 4-1 in the opener. "It never does.

"I still feel the same way I felt in Longview, Washington, going into opening day of the Western Little League. Same way I felt in high school, college, the minor leagues, the big leagues.

"It's a different day."

Opening day is a parade in Cincinnati, booing the mayor in Detroit, learning the names of yet another new batch of rookies in Florida and some wise guy yelling "Wait 'til next year!" following the first Cubs loss of the season.

It is Ramirez sneaking up behind a columnist in the Petco Park visitors' clubhouse and delivering a squirt from a spray bottle of cologne, point blank, aimed straight at the neck.

"It's good luck," Manny explained, before going 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in his encore season. (Maybe he'll try the Yves Saint Laurent tomorrow.)

It also is Manny standing in a nearly-deserted clubhouse before the game doing a television interview. And it is serious-as-a-truant-officer manager Joe Torre doing a walk-by and muttering, loud enough for Manny and the interviewer to hear, "Let's go, they're stretching out there."

You never know what you'll see on opening day: Interview abruptly ended, Manny actually ran out of the clubhouse, like a scolded schoolkid, late, as the rest of the Dodgers, sure enough, were limbering up in front of the dugout.

Already, they were on a mission. Speedsters Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson batting one-two, Manny third and so on. Best Dodgers lineup he has ever faced, Padres starter Jake Peavy said, noting it's so deep that James Loney is sixth and Matt Kemp -- who homered in the seventh -- is seventh.

Yep, a year ago, Torre recalled, he was explaining to Kemp in his office the reasons why Kemp shouldn't be playing against Peavy.

A year older and a year more mature, Kemp was in the lineup and, <em>ka-boom</em>, handled the Padres ace just fine.

Everybody agreed it was nice to be back.

"Like I was saying to my wife today, I'm happy we're opening on the road," said Torre, working his second opener as Dodgers skipper. "Because all of the hoopla at home gets a little nerve-wracking.

"There's more talking about it than doing it."

Ah. Isn't that so often the case in so many things in life?

Opening day is the best thing this side of summer vacation and blueberry pancakes. <em>Baseball's</em> opening day, of course. Football brings with it those dual unwelcome intruders, the first day of school and, soon thereafter, winter. Basketball's opening day is lost somewhere amid the dark and dreary time change in the fall that brings darkness even before dinnertime. And hockey's ... hey, when does hockey start, anyway?

"You look forward to it like a birthday party when you were a kid," Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio once said of opening day. "You think something wonderful is going to happen."

It is an Arizona senior citizen named Tony Clark, 36, who long ago was supposed to have said goodbye, drilling two home runs in Monday's 9-8 Diamondbacks victory against Colorado.

And it is an Atlanta phenom named Jordan Schafer introducing himself with an electric home run in his first major league at-bat in Philadelphia, a place he now will never forget. Which probably puts him right there with you, and your memories of the first time you sat in a big-league park with your father or your mother, and alongside so many other major leaguers who made memories for themselves on opening day.

Like Blake DeWitt, who was on the Dodgers' bench as a sub Monday with opening day memories of his own. It was only last year when he was on the fringe of the roster on the morning the season started, then found himself in the lineup that afternoon.

He didn't smash a home run like Schafer, but he did belt a single in his first big league at-bat, walk twice and score a run as the Dodgers beat San Francisco 5-0.

Yes, he watched Schafer on Sunday night, awaiting his second opening day while remembering his first.

"I had a good feeling that first at-bat after I got a hit," DeWitt said. "There's no telling what [schafer] felt after homering in that first at-bat."

Or, as Braves manager Bobby Cox said Sunday night after exhausting the list of everything Schafer <em>did</em> do: "He didn't make any spectacular catches."

Which is another of the most enticing aspects of opening day: What we don't see then, we've got 161 more chances to see.

Not that opening day is flawless. Those who saw their plans washed away in Chicago and Boston on Monday can tell you all about that. Because opening day also is the Weather Channel, long johns and raindrops. But it's the thought of better days and happier endings that gets us through the shivering.

Wet or dry, opening day is a tangible payoff after months of careful planning. Johan Santana to J.J. Putz to closer Francisco Rodriguez for the New York Mets, and it works beautifully.

Opening day also is a nagging reminder that no matter how much we prepare, sometimes things just aren't going to work out (no matter what your parents tell ya, kids). CC Sabathia couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS and a metal detector in Baltimore on Monday, walking five in his New York Yankees debut, surrendering six runs and departing before the fifth inning was completed. Is he the savior, or is that $161 million, seven-year deal headed for Barry Zito infamy?

And, opening day is a lesson that, sometimes, when life gives you lemons, toss 'em back and run to the local Piggly Wiggly to buy the darned lemonade. Stash this statistic in your back pocket: Five of the 12 pitchers on San Diego's opening day staff were not even with the club when spring training started.

Perhaps most surprising was the presence of the Walking Trade Rumor himself, Peavy. Making his fourth consecutive opening day start, Peavy, who had allowed only one run in 20 opening-day innings over the past three years, was touched for four runs and seven hits in seven innings and tagged with the loss.

"I'm not going to sulk," Peavy said of his in-limbo status (there remains a very good chance he'll be traded by July if the Padres fall out of contention, as expected). "My teammates have every bit of me. If it comes up, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

You see, like a lot of life, opening day is nothing if not unpredictable. It demonstrates that what we think we know, we sometimes don't. It reminds us that sometimes, while the anticipation of something can reach five-alarm status, it's still always best to actually wait and see what really happens. Imagine that.

"There were some pressure points in the offseason that led to all the speculation and talk," Black said of the winter trade talks involving Peavy. "But once they were relieved and we got to January, it was not a surprise. With baseball, it's fluid.

"Which is part of the appeal."

Isn't it, though? It's what keeps us coming back. If we knew what was going to happen, what fun would it be?

"It's part of baseball," DeWitt said. "It makes it fun. It makes it interesting."

Which of those who think Ken Griffey Jr. is finished actually would have dared predict that he would homer in his first game back with Seattle on Monday in Minnesota?

Opening day is poetry. It is sitting on your front porch with a cold beverage and a warm heart, summer around the bend, tomorrow awaiting like the next chapter of a riveting novel.

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