By Jason Keidel
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Opening Day, Bronx, New York, USA.
And yes, we still get chills, no matter our age or wage.
Our pastime resides in a century of echoes. Thousands of books, films, and documentaries have been written in the slow murmur of the game that has no clock. It recalls better days, blesses us with warmer weather, and doubles as a bookmark in our lives.
You remember where you were sitting when Kirk Gibson hit that homer; where you were standing when Joe Carter hit that homer; or where you were drinking when Carlton Fisk hit his immortal blast. I fell in love with the Yankees, gazing in prepubescent awe, while Reggie Jackson hit three homers on the three first pitches from three different pitchers in the World Series.
So even if you don’t recognize half of today’s ballplayers or ballparks, can’t afford a seat for a game you’ve attended for 40 years, everyone can relate to the old-world comfort of Opening Day.
You don’t have to be a Giants or Dodgers fan — or even a baseball fan — to appreciate the HBO documentary on Bobby Thomson’s home run on Oct. 3, 1951. That’s the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, of course, still framed as the greatest hit in history.
It makes many of us think we were born too early. Millions of us can’t remember, or even imagine, a time when New York City had three baseball teams, when all of them were good, and all of them still stirred among us. They lived locally, in apartments, drove the same cars, had offseason jobs and families and the sense that the only difference between us and them was we sat in the stands and they stood on the grass.
Now baseball players are corporate entities, brands, PR machines, wrapped in the flag of industry. They spend their time soaring around the world in Learjets while the rest of us live in it. But there’s just enough tangible history for us to pretend we can still relate to them.
Basketball has the Celtics and Lakers. Football has Vince Lombardi and John Unitas. Hockey has, well, whatever hockey has. But baseball bends every branch on the family tree, buried so deep into our generational mythology, that we just feel like baseball was created by Betsy Ross, the baseball cap weaved with leftover yarn from the American flag.
And thus we have today, April 7, 2014, the first game at Yankee Stadium. Or at least the current iteration of it.
Sure, it’s typically condescending for the Yankees fan to declare that the season commences today when the season started in March. But at least allow us that. The facade has been ripped off the franchise. Aura and Mystique indeed dance down the street. No one fears the Bronx Bombers anymore. They have to win with luck, talent, and temerity, like everyone else.
But there’s still a residual magic to Opening Day, when the Yankees can still at least linger in yesteryear. While the PR people sprinkle a little faerie dust on 2014, tap into our nostalgia with endless montages, there are some flashes of hope. Between Masahiro Tanaka’s strong showing on Friday and Michael Pineda’s muscular pitching on Saturday, the men in pinstripes could make a little noise this season.
And, of course, it’s Derek Jeter’s final, first home game. The Core Four will be summoned to Yankee Stadium for the occasion, and Jeter will supposedly toss the first pitch to one of his former, iconic brethren, which should yield a few tears from the stands, if not the dugout.
Beyond his obvious achievements on the diamond, Jeter is the last portal to the Torre Dynasty, and among the last players who remind us of the world before Facebook, before the myriad tentacles of social media stripped the romance from life.
Jeter may have kept his distance, his kinship with the public a bit cold or corporate, but he also kept it quiet and classy. You have his stance down. He ambles over to the batter’s box, greets the catcher, digs his cleats into the dirt, then raises his right arm toward the umpire as though balancing a butterfly on his wrist.
He will lean into pitches, lunge back from them, though not as quickly as he used to, and perhaps be hit by one. No doubt he’s got the bumps and scars from a hundred pitches bounced off his left forearm.
Jeter never overwhelmed you with his talent as much as his intelligence. Jeter is like baseball, nurtured by nuance. While baseball lore is fueled by its big boppers, like Ruth or Mantle or Mays, by the long flawless swings of Will Clark and Darryl Strawberry, the games are often won by the less nuclear players. It’s about huffing toward first base, finishing that double play, or breaking one up.
Derek Jeter was never the best player in baseball, or even close. He wasn’t always the best player on his own team. But Jeter always understood and respected the game, treating it with the attitude, gratitude, and dedication of a rookie, even when he morphed into a star.
Players like Jeter are the reason the Yankees still don’t stitch names onto the back of their jerseys. It was about the collective, the pinstripes, long before he arrived, and will be long after he leaves. Baseball is an ideal as much as a sport, the selfless notion that a player is one among many, part a larger organism that wins with the military, metaphysical notions of teamwork and chemistry, a resounding esprit de corps.
Baseball is about its past, which feeds its future. It’s about three generations sitting in a row, one dropping more knowledge than the next. It’s about Opening Day, something all stars and All-Stars can understand. Even for those of us who are simply stargazing.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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