game 1 Opening Night

Major League baseball, ever on the prowl for more income, has now sliced Opening Day into so many slivers it’s unrecognizable. The first day of baseball season was always a peak moment of spring for me, but with MLB trying to rub its little head over and over, they’ve ground it down into nothing.

The baseball season began with two games just about no one saw, with Seattle and Oakland playing in Japan. I am told they split the series, but as far as most fans are concerned, these games were conducted as Playstation simulations.

Tonight, we have the season’s first night game in North America. Yes, all those adjectives are necessary to distinguish it from tomorrow’s wave, in which day baseball begins, and with multiple teams taking the field. Tonight, MLB guaranteed the Marlins a sellout in their new ballpark by scheduling it as a standalone game.

Even when MLB lets multiple teams out of the gate tomorrow, they still dole them out grudgingly, painstakingly focusing our attention on seven games. We don’t have a full slate until Saturday. Remind me: what constitutes the first pitch of the season in all this throat clearing?

The old rules were gloriously simple: the Cincinnati Reds, ever honored as the oldest team in baseball, got to throw out the first pitch at 1:05 pm in their home field, followed in a thrilling fusillade when all the other teams launched themselves throughout the afternoon and deep into the evening.

It was too much baseball, sure, but only a ritual soaking in the game could set me up for the monumental march through a 162-game season. And after six months wandering in a baseball-free desert, I want that firehose.

Tonight I must be content with a single game, played against a tangy lime green backdrop no less. The new Miami Marlins ballpark is probably a wonderful place to watch a game, but what ESPN nudged me to notice first were the gimmicks: fish tanks, a still-silent home run celebration feature, and a tropical look that seems to integrate the place nicely with its Little Havana environs.

The place was packed tonight, but even the Expos used to sell out their home openers. We need a full season to answer the two big questions: will the ball carry with the roof open, and can the Marlins solve the problem of attracting fans in Florida?

They made bold gambles to do so, and it’s not clear which will be the more attention-getting, the color scheme or non-stop-loudmouth Ozzie Guillen as manager. And they brought in some serious, and costly, talent to compliment a nucleus that was already bursting with potential. Well, did the 37,000 people in the stands see some good omens?

Because an Opening Day always teases us into thinking we’re in on the ground floor, already detecting a direction. Baseball is so absurdly cumulative—a team’s season accretes like barnacles—that no single game holds a clue, but we look anyway.

Marlins fans won’t have liked what they saw. The Cardinals won smoothly, 4-1, with last year’s postseason hero David Freese picking up so literally where he left off it was nearly magical. (It wasn’t just two RBI, it was on a two-strike count with two outs. Again!)

As a box score, the game will look lopsided, even dispiriting to a Marlins fan. But I saw several positive signs. First, Josh Johnson’s return from an injury-shortened 2011 began with a sloppy first inning and a walk-sac-single run scored in the second. After that, Johnson settled in, collecting four strikeouts over 6 innings. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but Johnson could still be capable of building on his 2010 Cy Young season and continue to whittle his WHIP into persistent All-Star territory.

New centerpiece Jose Reyes was the only bright light of the Marlins’ night. The rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize on his two leadoff hits, but Reyes was doing the job they asked him to do. However, the new infield that slides Hanley Ramrirez to third base to make room for Reyes did a lot of staring at a Carlos Beltran single trickling between them in the second. Eeek.

If the Marlins must content themselves with tomorrow-is-another-day, the Cardinals have retained some sweet World Series swagger to start the season. Subbing for an injured Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, who is no one’s idea of an Opening Day ace, kept the Marlins hitless through six innings. It was an ace performance, with single earned run, two hits, and three Ks. Lohse didn’t labor to achieve the win; he was neatly in control all night, locating pitches and baiting nearly every batter with a first pitch strike.

And that earned run that blots his record? Oh, the cruelties of baseball scoring. Let’s break it down as an object lesson in what can make a player, or a fan, mutter. Logan Morrison led off the eighth with a single. We might suspect Lohse is tiring, or running out of shtick on the third trip through the order, but he turns around to strike out Gaby Sanchez. Brand new manager Mike Matheny makes his first pitching change, playing by the book to bring in Fernando Salas. It’s now one out, 4-0 Cardinals.

Salas’s first pitch is a double play ball to Omar Infante. Except the umpire couldn’t quite agree that first baseman Lance Berkman leaned, scooped, caught, and raised his glove holding the ball all before Infante touched first. This wasn’t one of those nanosecond plays, this was a first baseman with his hand raised in success who took about five strides toward the dugout before the umpire’s “safe” call registered.

Well, this appears like nothing more than a mild delay in the end of inning proceedings and the stately glide to a shutout. But I paused to wonder: would it matter?

It did. John Buck chipped a few fouls before hitting a sound double to center that scored Infante. And Lohse is assigned the run, since Morrison was out in what became a fielder’s choice when the botched call granted Infante first. Infante becomes an inherited runner. Dang.

In the span of a season, absolutely none of this will be material. The pesky earned run Lohse must lug around, the crummy first inning Johnson must put behind him, the lost and lonely leadoff hits Reyes tossed into the wind, even Freese’s 3-for-5, 2 RBI resumption of last year’s momentum—these aren’t omens, but they are the way a season starts. One game at a time, some of them distinguished by coral and lime green accents.


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