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April 2 2001 – Opening Day: Part Two: The Game

opening-day-tixKudos to whoever wrote the script for today’s Opening Day show, because it couldn’t have been better. If I were a theater critic, I’d say it had equal parts poignancy, laughter, drama, action, and a bang of an ending!

It was the first time I’d ever been to Opening Day, and I must say it was well worth taking off from work and driving 500 miles round trip within 24 hours. Even if it was gray, and way too cold for baseball, it was not a day to miss. It really is a holiday for Yankees fans, a day when we can just be fans, and exult in just what fanatics we are.

There was much pomp and circumstance, and I got a lump in my throat watching the Championship flag being raised, so it would have been a special day no matter what. But the Yankees also came through on the field, with a great game, and a little history, as well.

Things kicked off with Roger Clemens throwing his first pitch for a strike. That pattern didn’t hold up throughout the day, though, as he was constantly behind batters in the count. It didn’t look to us like he had his best stuff. In the first KC Royal Carlos Febles led off with a comebacker at Clemens, who threw to first for the out. Then came Carlos Beltran, and as the Section 39 faithful, the Bleacher Creatures (and everyone around them) joined in the roll call, Beltran blooped a high pop into short left center. Knobby ran in, Luis Sojo ran out, Bernie ran in… really, it should have been Sojo’s. Sojo, starting at short because Derek Jeter is still in Tampa rehabbing his strained quad muscle, is a good fielder. But when he couldn’t snag the ball as it rocketed down just out of his reach, you know what went through many people minds was: Jeter makes that play…

The scoreboard registered it as a hit, then as an error, and then as a hit. Beltran then stole second and Clemens walked first baseman Mike Sweeney. If that was the kind of day it was going to be, well, it was going to be a long one. Jermaine Dye hit a long sac fly to right to move Beltran to third. Clemens then went to three balls on Joe Randa and we began to cringe.

But this is Roger Clemens, and between the eagle Challenger flying to the pitchers mound, and the raising of the flag, and the healthy Mel Stottlemyre throwing out the first pitch… well, there was a little bit of destiny in the air. Clemens reared back and the next thing you knew, Randa was struck out, inning over, and no damage done.

I’m sure the Yankees would have loved to jump out to an early lead, especially if the Rocket was struggling. But it didn’t work out that way. Knobby struck out, Soriano grounded to short, and Paul O’Neill grounded to second. Score zero zero.

Second inning, either Clemens settled down, or the Royals got too anxious to hit, figuring “oh, Clemens doesn’t have his stuff, swing the bats!” The results of their swings were three quick outs, a fly to right, a pop to third, and a grounder to second. Clemens’ stuff was certainly good enough. And hey, Soriano looked pretty good out there.

The Yankees offense began to waken. Bernie hit a fly to center. Justice singled. Tino hit a ball right to the shortstop, though. Jorge singled, but Sojo got tangled up at the plate, swung halfway at a pitch and ended up with an unintentional drag bunt, and was thrown out at first by the catcher. Still zero zero, but at least we had some hits.

In the third, two more quick outs, both on flies to right field, as Paul received loud ovations from the right field stands. So glad he’s back! But the loudest cheer of the inning, in fact of the game up to that point, came when a third fly ball went up toward left field. The roar began before the ball even came down, routinely, into Knoblauch’s glove, and he was given a standing ovation as he trotted into the dugout with Bernie Williams.

The bottom of the inning went in a similar fashion to the second. Brosius and Soriano had singles, but Chuck hit into a double play and Paulie flew out to center. Still zero zero, but you got the feeling the Yankees were going to figure out pitcher Jeff Suppan pretty soon.

Rocketman Clemens was not exactly breezing through, given the number of pitches he threw early in the counts that were not strikes, but miraculously, he avoided walking anyone (except for Sweeney in the first). Somehow, he would get behind batters, and then still get them out. In the fourth, Sweeney grounded to third. Jermaine Dye hit a single that Luis Sojo dove for but couldn’t come up with, and again that question flitted through our minds–does Jeter come up with the ball? The question didn’t linger because the baserunner never got very far. Joe Randa popped to shallow right where Soriano caught the ball, and Clemens got Mark Quinn looking. It seemed odd to have Clemens only record two strikeouts in four innings, but hey, when he really needed one, to kill the rallies in the first and fourth and end those innings, he did it. The crowd was ecstatic. The chant of “Ro-ger Clem-mens” went up from the right field stands.

Bottom of the fourth, could the Yankees get to Suppan? A grounder 3-1, then a grounder 1-3, brought Tino Martinez to the plate with two outs. Last year, of course, Tino got off to a slow start and just dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole as he got despondent over all the home runs he wasn’t hitting. Tino then spent the off season working out with an ex-Marine trainer, who worked him until he puked every day, resulting in a quicker, svelter, Tino. Well, maybe all that suffering is going to pay off. Tino smoked a line drive into the bleachers for his first home run of the season. Jorge then grounded out 3-1, but the score was 1-0 Yanks.

The Royals evened the score quickly. In the top of the fifth, Dee Brown flew out to center, but Hector Ortiz poked a single. Rey Sanchez, batting in the number 9 hole, then came to bat.The sun came out while he was at bat, and that provoked a cheer. Unfortunately, when he hit a nice double play ball, the Royals had a hit and run going, so there was no chance to get Ortiz at second and end the inning. Carlos Febles then hit an RBI single, a grounder that got through the infield and rolled slowly into left. Chuck charged in for it and threw so hard to home that he almost fell over. Maybe he did fall over–I turned to look at Jorge. Jorge picked the ball cleanly, but Ortiz was already way past him and safe. In my opinion there was no way Chuck could catch the runner, who was most of the way home already, but I guess he had to try, maybe to see if he could, or maybe to be sure no one thinks he’s loafing out there. Personally, I think he’s just dying to throw somebody out, like he did in that Spring Training game against the Red Sox. Come on! I dare ya! Of course, what he should have done was throw to the cutoff man, but, well, he’s learning.

Then came Carlos Beltran, who already had one hit off Clemens and we wondered if the Royals rally would continue. It did not, thanks to a great catch by Bernie Williams. Tied 1-1.

The Yankees couldn’t get it going again in the bottom of the fifth. Sojo flew out, Brosius looked lost as he struck out, Chuck stroked one of his patented line drives over the infield, but was stranded with Soriano flew out to left. The Yankees now had six hits against Suppan and only one run to show for it.

In the sixth, Mike Sweeney popped up behind the plate for Jorge for a quick out. But then came Jermaine Dye. 1-for-1 with a sac fly, you know he’s an All-Star, you know he could be trouble. He was. Home run. 2-1 Royals. It could have been worse, but there was Bernie again, recording the out against Joe Randa, and then another amazing catch to end the inning, on a line drive off the bat of Mark Quinn that he dove to snare. Whew!

The home run and the great plays stirred up the fans and the Yankees bench as well. Paulie led off the inning with a base hit, and then Bernie came to bat. You could feel the excitement in the crowd as Bernie went through his usual ritual of laying the bat along the plate and drawing a line for his foot. The cheers were loud and numerous. The crowd was hungry for something to happen, to answer the Royals run. Maybe Bernie still had the adrenaline from the dive catch flowing in his veins. And maybe Suppan was running out of gas Whatever it was, Suppan went to 3-0 on Bernie, and with the crowd in a frenzy, Bernie went boom! Two run home run! First Tino with a solo shot, and now Bernie with a two!

Yes, the Yankees had solved Suppan. He then walked David Justice, not wanting to repeat the mistake he’d made to Bernie, I guess. And then he walked Tino, who’d gone yard on him once already. Bad idea. That just put two men on and got Suppan yanked from the game. On came a rookie lefty sidearmer named Tony Cogan. Oops, that didn’t faze Jorge Posada, who figured to get onto the bandwagon. Tino: one run homer, Bernie: two run homer, Jorge: THREE RUN HOMER! All the happy celebration songs that we hadn’t heard since October rang out at the stadium.

Sojo made out–we were still celebrating the home runs in my section so I missed how. Then Brosius hit a single. Then Chuck worked out a walk and that ended things for Tony Cogan. Unfortunately, the rally didn’t continue much beyond there, as the Royals brought in Jose Santiago, and Soriano flew out to right, and Paulie, up for the second time in the inning, grounded to first. But hey, now it was 6-2 Yankees.

Clemens came out for the seventh. Dee Brown singled and the leadoff man was on for the first time. That riled Clemens who got his revenge on the run-scoring Hector Ortiz, catching him looking. Rey Sanchez then smoked a hot shot that Soriano grabbed out of the air, took to the bag at second and threw out the runner at first, 4-4-3 double play. Beautiful! You can hardly believe he’s the guy who was so ham-handed in the infield last year. Is it too early to think about Rookie of the Year?

In the bottom of the seventh the Yanks tacked on an insurance run against pitcher Kris WIlson. Bernie singled, Justice hit the ball but forced Bernie out at second, then went to second on a Tino Martinez single, and scored on a Jorge Posada double. Sojo was not having a good day, I guess, between the two balls he missed that he probably thought he should have had, and his fourth out in as many at bats, grounding to short. Brosius meanwhile had been on, off, on, off–with a hit, a strike out, a hit, and now another strikeout to end the inning. 7-2 Yanks.

In the eighth here came Febles, and in almost a replay of the first at bat of the day, he hit the ball right back at Clemens. This time, though, it bounced off the pitcher somewhere–I couldn’t tell exactly what part of him it hit–but it looked like his throwing arm. (I later read in the paper that the ball had hit his right forearm so hard it left a dent.) After he hopped up and down for a second and found the ball at his feet, and threw the runner out at first, Jorge called for the trainer to come out. Torre came out, too, and made Roger throw a warm up pitch before he left him in the game.

Adversity makes the Rocket bear down, it would seem. And normally the crowd doesn’t start to cheer or stand up for a strikeout until there are two strikes on a batter. But they started getting on their feet as soon as he had one strike on Carlos Beltran. He struck out Beltran and the scoreboard showed that it was Clemens’ three thousand five hundred and eighth strikeout. (#3508). I knew, from reading something in the off season, that he was coming up on passing Walter Johnson on the all time strikeout list, and apparently a lot of other fans knew, too. People had been streaming for the exits since the seventh (as is the custom in New York, where traffic rules peoples lives), but as soon as he had that K, they were glued to the game.

The next batter was Mike Sweeney. The crowd stayed on its feet, and Clemens got the first strike the hard way — a long foul ball that was almost a home run. Then a second strike, a swing and miss. Those who weren’t cheering held their breath. Sweeney wasn’t about to be a record-setting victim, though. He swung the bat and made contact, and hit another comebacker right to Clemens. Threw to Tino. Third out!

The Yanks went down 1-2-3 in the eighth facing Doug Henry and you almost didn’t mind. Everyone was hoping the Rocket would come out for the ninth. Chuck walloped a line drive down the first base line that would have been at least a double, but the first baseman happened to be standing right there to grab it before it could go by. Soriano grounded to third and O’Neill flew out to left. Still 7-2 Yanks.

And now the ninth. Here again was Jermaine Dye, who had a sac, a single, and a home run. Clemens took him to 2-2 — oh, how sweet it would have been to strike him out! But no, Dye ripped a double. Argh. Was Clemens hurt from getting hit? Out of gas? Next came Joe Randa, who had struck out to end the first. Our worrying intensified as Clemens threw a wild pitch and Dye moved to third. Could Clemens do it to Randa again?

Yes. Randa swung at a ball in the dirt for strike three and the stadium erupted with cheers. With K #3509, Clemens became the all-time leader for strike outs in the American League, and moved into seventh place on the all-time list. After his teammates gathered around him and gave him congratulatory pats on the back, Joe Torre immediately came out and took the ball.

It was not a save situation, so Joe called on Todd Williams, about whom we know almost nothing. In fact, he’s so new to the Yankees (and to the majors) that there isn’t even a bio about him or any stats on MLB.com or at The Sporting News. Well, he had rookie jitters, just like Tony Cogan, although at least he didn’t give up a home run. Called on just to record two outs after all the hoopla, Williams may have forgotten about Jermaine Dye on third. Or maybe he just made a mistake–as well as an error. Mark Quinn came up and on a 3-1 count flubbed a hit in front of the mound. Williams ran to snatch it up and then made a hurried throw to first–it was doubtful he could have gotten the runner there even with a good throw. The throw skipped past Tino and Dye scored, sending Quinn all the way to second.

Now it was 7-3 with a man in scoring position, still not a save situation, but it felt like one. As Joe came out to bail out the rookie, the sounds of Enter Sandman played over the PA system. And here we thought we weren’t going to get to see Mariano Rivera, today, because it was such a blowout! Well, we felt sorry for Williams but it’s always a treat to see Mo.

Dee Brown, the DH, hit the ball hard, but Soriano was able to glove it and get him out at first. Can’t say it enough times–it looks like the kid has bloomed. Let’s see him keep it up! Raul Ibanez came in to pinch hit and worked out a walk on a ten pitch at bat! Two men on and one out to go…

Then, Luis Alicea came in to pinch hit. He hit a ball bouncing down the first base foul line that stayed fair right into Tino’s glove, who stepped on the bag for the final out of the game.

Clemens got the win, which also moved him into 34th place on the all time wins list. And Yankee fans got another historic game to remember, and hopefully an augury of what the season will bring the Yankees: great defensive plays, great pitching, and lots of home runs.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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