March 27, 2020 11:42:51 am
By Dan Barry
Professional baseball greeted a new season this afternoon with an Opening Day game for the ages, an extra-inning masterpiece that vividly unfolded on the sun-dappled field of the imagination. The crack of the bat could almost be heard, the blur of white almost seen, the communal joy nearly felt.
From the moment the first batter tipped his helmet — and a bird flew out — to the walk-off home run by a faltering pinch-hitter, this 11-inning affair redefined what constitutes a perfect game. No one cared about the outcome; the distraction was reward enough.
Don’t misunderstand: This game between the New York Gothams and the Cincinnati Greens mattered, but in ineffable ways beyond the columns of wins and losses. It mattered so much that complaints about baseball’s slow pace yielded to the universal wish that this game would last forever.
“I could’ve played into the night,” said the redeemed Gothams left fielder Sammy Sosa, who missed part of last season after sneezing so hard that he strained a ligament in his back. “I didn’t want this game to end.”
It had been a difficult offseason, after all, the worst in memory. Beyond the usual challenges, including the vexing issue of performance-enhancing drugs, baseball struggled to address a cheating scandal serious enough to sully the legitimacy of a World Series championship.
Yet these consequential baseball matters were instantly made trivial by unsettling developments far from any ballpark. Yes: a difficult offseason. Make that a horrific one.
But on the open field of the collective mind, the sun played peekaboo with cottony clouds, the air suggested but did not demand a sweater, and the gates opened in welcome to a ballpark with infinite capacity.
Fans presented their reasonably priced tickets and received in return a surprise gift: a vinyl record of the finest disco music of the late 1970s. These records — items of destructive mischief in another era — were packed with care and taken home for many nights of “Stayin’ Alive” enjoyment.
The spectators sat shoulder-to-shoulder and reveled in concession-stand fare free of sushi and chardonnay. Only beer and soda, hot dogs and Cracker Jack.
The pregame formalities were handled by a public-address announcer with the voice of a convivial god — a cross between Bob Sheppard and Vin Scully. He introduced Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a straightforward strike.
Then two celebrities met at the pitcher’s mound to sing the national anthem: singer José Feliciano, who once sang the finest rendition at a baseball game, and comedian Roseanne Barr, who once sang the worst.
The two sang in pitch-perfect harmony. People wept.
And the game began.
The first batter, Greens right fielder Casey Stengel, seemed especially happy to be at a baseball game, perhaps because he had missed the final month of last season after a particularly intense Guitar Hero solo left him in traction.
Stengel stepped into the batter’s box, then stepped out to acknowledge the cheers. He doffed his helmet — and a bird flew out and up and away. Some say it was a sparrow; others, a glorious dove.
The antic delighted the crowd but tested the patience of the home-plate authority Pam Postema, the first woman to wear umpire blue at a regular-season major league game — at least on this conjured field. She ordered Stengel back into the batter’s box, where he promptly popped up on the first pitch from Gothams pitcher John Smoltz.
The right-hander commenced to silence doubters who thought he would never recover from the injury he suffered last year while ironing his shirt. (He was wearing said shirt at the time of said ironing, it was said; he has consistently denied this account.) He kept batters off-balance with a devilish mix of pitches, including a curveball that seemed to strafe third base before finding home.
But in the fourth inning, Greens first baseman Vic Wertz rocketed a line drive that sent Gothams center fielder Willie Mays racing to the wall, his back to the plate.
Nobody in attendance could later articulate exactly what happened next. Somehow, Mays caught the ball over his head on a dead run. Somehow, he spun and rifled a throw back to the infield to hold the stunned runners at first and second, his hat flying, his torqued body flailing like a teetering top.
The play shocked the ballpark into reverent silence. Then came an eruption of cheers and applause from the stands, both dugouts and all the players on the field, including the opposing runners on base. It was pure elation, springing from having witnessed, in microcosm, man overcoming challenge.
The bipartisan bonhomie was briefly interrupted in the sixth inning when Gothams manager Buddy Harrelson and Greens manager Pete Rose came to blows — again — over a close play at second base. It was a kind of AARP-sponsored re-enactment of their infamous brawl as players in 1973, only this time no punch connected, and no dugout emptied.
The home-plate umpire, Postema, did not exactly exert herself in separating the aged adversaries. After a brief timeout to allow them to catch their breaths, the two men walked off the field arm-in-arm — although their argument continued well after the game.
“My fault entirely,” Harrelson later said. “I’m calling him tonight to say how sorry I am.”
“Buddy’s wrong, again,” Rose answered. “This is on me, and I’ll be the one to apologize, goddamn it.”
Meanwhile, Greens pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm was all but matching Smoltz in excellence, though with pitches that tangoed more than darted. He is a knuckleballer, after all, who showed no ill effects from his injurious encounter last year with a wild boar.
Wilhelm twice ran into trouble, and twice was rescued by his shortstop, the preternaturally calm Derek Jeter. In the second inning, Jeter dived deep into the stands to catch a foul ball and end a Gothams rally. And in the eighth, he snagged an errant cutoff throw and flipped it to the catcher to nip a runner at home. The plays were all the more remarkable because Jeter made them seem routine.
The game remained scoreless until the top of the 11th, when the Greens finally got to Smoltz. Left fielder Jimmy Piersall, who went on the injured list last year after crashing into a table during a nightmare about spiders, sent a hanging curve ball into the left-field seats.
Piersall celebrated what was the 100th home run of his career by moonwalking his way around the diamond. He even shook hands with the third-base coach as he shuffled backward toward the embrace of exuberant teammates.
But the home team had one more chance.
With two outs in the bottom of the 11th, right fielder Mike Davis walked. Harrelson, the Gothams’ manager, then made the surprising choice of the veteran Kirk Gibson to pinch-hit.
Injuries to both of his legs had prevented Gibson from starting the game — injuries caused not by some freak accident, but by the demands of his profession. He all but hobbled to the plate, the bat in his hand more like a cane he was too proud to use.
His inability to anchor himself became painfully evident as he barely fouled off the first two pitches of an ace reliever we do not need to name. Then he hit a weak dribbler down the first-base line that mercifully went foul, so lame was his attempt to beat it out.
Ball one. Another foul. Ball two. Ball three. The ballpark was quiet as a church.
Now, with the count full and fate in the offing, the reliever threw. And Gibson swung. More accurately, he lunged, all arms and chest and shoulders, his hopes extending beyond his physical limitations.
Bat met ball. Ball rose into the twilight, up, up, and then down, down, to land beyond the right-field wall. In a time that seemed so improbable, it was said, the impossible had happened.
This Opening Day game over, we ran together onto the verdant field of our imagination, rejoicing in the season’s renewal.
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