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April 11, 2006: Inauguration

And thus was the high holy day of The Home Opener celebrated. With sunshine and cheers and an earsplitting flyover. With elder statesman Yogi Berra throwing out the first pitch and the sacrificial lamb of Ambiorix Burgos served up to appease the gods of Yankee superiority. We clamored in the ritual fashion, and our prayers were answered.

Today dawned sunny and warm in New York City. I have now attended six home openers in a row and this was the first where I did not have to wear a jacket. Sixty-eight degrees, a gentle breeze, it was a great improvement over the snow-out we suffered for Matsui’s debut, and even last year’s 8pm ESPN-fest against the Red Sox. Sadly, announcer Bob Sheppard had to miss his first home opener in 56 years as he fell and suffered a hip injury last night. His understudy, a man I have heard is cut from Sheppard’s mold and like Sheppard taught speech at St. John’s, filled in admirably with his best Bob Sheppard impression. Freddie the Fan was in attendance, though, with his signature pan, and a sign that read “2006 Opening Day/Let’s Go Yankees/Show The Way.”

When Johnny Damon strode to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first, he was greeted by cheers. Opening Day is all about cheering. The last time we had a chance to exercise our lungs was a chilly October night in New York, a game that had been postponed by rain, a nail-biter against the Angels. Today couldn’t have been more different from that night. Damon, the “new Yankee,” doubled, and received a standing ovation. (As I said, all about cheering.)

Jeter and Sheffield each grounded out, though, and Damon remained on second. Was Joe Mays going to escape the first unscathed? Alex Rodriguez then worked a walk, to bring Jason Giambi to the plate. The man sitting next to me called him “the world’s most expensive singles hitter.” I was in the middle of my reply–that it was Giambi who carried the team offensively in the second half of last season, and that even with the awful two months he had, if he had batted as many times as A-rod last season, he would have matched A-rod’s MVP offensive numbers–when Giambi laced a line drive rocket into the bleachers in right field. Three-nothing Yankees.

The cheering was such that Giambi had to be forced out of the dugout for a curtain call. It’s all about the cheering. There were cheers when Damon walked to lead off the third. Louder cheers when A-rod walked again. Still louder when Giambi walked to load the bases. And a terrific cheer when Matsui took ball four to force in a run and knock Mays from the game.

But the Kansas City Royals were not content to merely play a passive part in the inauguration ceremony for the new lineup. They tied the score at four off Chien Ming Wang in the fourth, and went ahead in the fifth. The crowd fell into a lull. But Opening Day, as Jason Giambi can tell you from experience, is also a day for boos. Tanyon Sturtze came in to pitch the seventh, and gave up a home run into the first row of the short porch on his very first pitch. He did strike out Mike Sweeney, but also gave up a ground rule double and another run. Mike Myers and Scott Procter (the Yankees’ best reliever in the spring) closed the barn door after that, though, to give the Yankees the chance to catch up.

Facing Andrew Sisco in the bottom of the eighth, down by a score of 7-4, Giambi reached base for the fourth consecutive time today, drawing his third walk. Matsui followed with a single to the right side, and Posada worked the count and ended up with what would have been ball four but it actually grazed him a little. With the bases loaded, Robinson Cano then his into a fielder’s choice, beating out a double play and bringing in one run. Thus there were men on the corners for Bernie Williams.

Bernie had received the loudest ovations of the day each time he had come up to bat. Yankees fans know this is probably his last year, and as a lifelong Yankee who has provided so many great memories, acknowledge that. Bernie stared at the first three pitches, and anxiety began to grow in the crowd. But Bernie laced a clean line drive into center to bring in another run and make it only 7-6 in favor of the Royals. The standing ovation for Bernie put the crowd on their feet and they did not sit again until the end of the game.

So much for lefthander Andrew Sisco. Even with lefthanded Johnny Damon coming up, Sisco was removed in favor of Ambiorix Burgos. The crowd’s cries for blood in the arena were so loud by then that I have no idea how Bob Sheppard’s understudy pronounced the new pitcher’s name.

A time for boos. Johnny Damon struck out on three pitches and whacked his bat on the ground in frustration. Admittedly, there were only a few token boos at that point–hazing more than genuine disappointment since Johnny had already scored twice and put down a lovely sac bunt which had earned him a standing ovation back in the fourth. Johnny went back to the diugout.

The Captain, Derek Jeter, strode to the plate, looking for all the world like what he might have been thinking was “Jeez, Johnny, do I have to do everything around here? I guess I will.” Jeter walloped the first pitch he saw over the wall in left (yes, he pulled the ball), for a three run home run and a 9-7 lead. Jeter was called out for a curtain call, and fans even tried to get a second one out of him with loud, rhythmic chants of his name, but to no avail.

Gary Sheffield struck out to end the inning in post-climactic fashion. There is always one guy who doesn’t join the party, and Sheff was the only Yankee not to reach base today. The fans serenaded Jeter again as he took his position in the field for the final step in the ceremonial victory over the Royals: Mariano Time.

Rivera wasn’t perfect today, but he didn’t have to be, giving up a bloop single and hitting a man (perhaps payback for Jorge?) but as usual he did not appear troubled. The game ended when Doug Mientkiewicz (remember him?) lined a ball right into Mariano’s glove.

And thus was the high holy day of the Home Opener concluded, with Frank Sinatra, and high fives, and pinstripes shaking hands with pinstripes on the field.

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