Opening day is the one true holiday for baseball aficionados everywhere. It combines the pomp and circumstance of a civil celebration, the anticipation of a Christmas morning, and the downright pagan revelry of a good old rebirth ceremony - you know, the kind that seeks to banish rookies and winter to the land of ghosts and wind.
This year I didn’t just want to focus on the Giants. I wanted to celebrate Opening Day’s entire collection.
So, against my better logic and moral principles, I agreed to venture down to a Dodgers fan’s house to watch the L.A.-Atlanta game. When said Dodgers fan opened his door wearing one of those evil shirts that not only include Eric Gagne’s visage, but also a yarn-blue tuft of goatee, it took all I had to avoid punching both friend and shirt in their stupid Dodgers faces (this would have been a double-punch, a la the early-90’s video game “Double Dragon,” a difficult maneuver reserved only for L.A. fans and haters of Omar Vizquel.)
But the Braves did all the punching for me. Atlanta was starting Tim Hudson against L.A.’s gawky-shouldered ace, Derrick Lowe, and immediately, the Dodgers looked even older and more overpaid than last year’s Giants. Jeff Kent made an error in the first, allowing a subsequent three-run homer by Adam LaRoche.
Atlanta’s Andruw Jones added another bomb in the fifth, and suddenly the score was 8-1, and all I could think about was the Giants inflicting similar blowouts on the Dodgers throughout this upcoming season - never allowing the score to get close, since the Giants bullpen and leads against L.A. are two things that have not so much gone well, the last year and a half.
But this Dodgers team is full of veterans, a thing that their new general manager, Ned Colletti, has purposefully wrought, already reaping side effects like injuries to Nomar Garciaparra and Kenny Lofton. The squad reminds me a lot of last year’s Giants: questionable starting pitching, closer issues, and a lack of everyday consistency in their position players.
But veterans, in contrast to emotionally-saddled rookies, are much more adept at coming back from large deficits, knowing that, except in MTV’s ill-fated Rock-and-Jock softball games, the eight-run homer is roundly forbidden.
L.A. scored four runs in the fifth inning - and nine throughout the rest of the game - without a home run. Their new shortstop, Rafael Furcal, finished the day with three hits, including a beautiful Maury Wills-esque slash bunt past the pitcher. Kent knocked in four, driving a ball into the gap to keep the game in reach. And Jose bleeping Cruz, the former Giant who would still hit .250 if the second baseman were replaced with a bucket, went 4-6.
But Atlanta would seal the game with three runs against the L.A. bullpen, and the Dodgers replacement center fielder Jason Repko would misplay the exact same drive that, in the upcoming game at San Diego, the Giants Randy Winn would snag beautifully.
In the end, the blue-men lost 11-10, and Opening Day had started magnificently - with a competitive, interesting game that nevertheless resulted in a rival’s defeat. I will say this about the Dodgers: they should in no way be considered the favorites in the N.L. West. They will need above average years from too many players of questionable health and ability - the oft-injured J.D. Drew and Nomar Garciaparra, the flailing Jose Cruz Jr. - and their bench and bullpen are not currently strong enough to compensate for even a dusting of the bad luck that plagued them last year.
Maybe Eric Gagne will take a kitchen spoon and tear away the remaining scar tissue in his shoulder, allowing him to finally regain that high-90’s heater. Maybe reliever Yhency Brazoban will discover a way to get mediocre hitters like Pedro Feliz out. Perhaps third baseman Billy Mueller will hit .330 with six grand slams, and Shawon Dunston will emerge from the cold dead earth to pinch hit in the clutch and round out a cast of ex-Giants.
But it is all less likely than more. Which brings us to this year’s San Francisco club.
Until the first pitch, I didn’t realize that one feeling above all else would dominate this season:
And not the I-hope-we-get-a-two-out-hit style of worrying. No. This is the full-throttle mother-bear fear. Perhaps this team is better built to withstand a loss of Barry Bonds than last year’s. But that doesn’t mean they can. And at this point, twenty years distant from Big Poppa’s Major League debut, there is no future left. Any swing, any catch, any sprint from second to home could be his last - could be our last to witness.
As a result, each game in which he plays will be infused with a sense of unspeakable dread, since entropy is as merciless on knees as on a franchise itself, especially one that has not won a championship in half a century.
During the game against the Padres, I found myself cheering when Barry’s double bounced over the fence, meaning he didn’t have to run. I clapped whenever Randy Winn and Omar Vizquel streaked into left field, snagging balls that most fielders weighing under 240 pounds would have caught easily.
I found myself wondering if it would be better to give up a portion of the outfield entirely, using two players instead of three, so that Bonds’s bat could be kept in the lineup.
These are not healthy thoughts. And this, coupled with the threat of next year’s rebuilding and rookie infusion, paints this season with a decided desperation that is not unlike drinking way too much coffee on an empty stomach.
Though the game itself - the Opening Day defeat at the gilded hands of the Padres - was nothing to worry about. At times, it seemed as if San Diego starter Jake Peavy was throwing a Wiffle ball at 94 miles per hour, using those felicitous slits in the plastic to facilitate movement.
Without Barry Bonds in the lineup, the Giants would have been shut out - most teams would get blanked, actually, against a pitcher with so much working. Which is the nature of baseball, along with the two home runs hit off starter Jason Schmidt, who otherwise pitched well. Even the kids from the bullpen, Jack Taschner and Jeremy Accardo, managed to avoid embarrassing themselves, allowing a pair of runs on a two-out, right field hit by the Padres Khalil Greene, a Giant-killer who is quickly approaching the Paul Lo Ducca rung of notoriety.
But the Padres are no more of a threat than the Dodgers, for the simple and irrefutable fact that Shawn Estes is their number-2 starter. Harumph to that. And the pitching only goes downhill from there.
If the Giants starting rotation and bullpen can perform as expected, it is their division to take. The presence of Armando Benitez on the D.L. is actually a blessing. I was there in Scottsdale when he gave up eight runs in a span of four outs. No matter how bad that might seem when imagined by those reading the box score, the actual event was more ghastly and damning than any mix of memory and description could provide. We were sitting next to the advanced scouts from the other M.LB. clubs - all of whom were laughing like school girls as they flashed to each other the low radar-gun readings.
Their division - as long as Barry Bonds can limp out a hundred games. And Steve Kline can focus more on getting out lefties and less on hunting down and imparting wedgies to nerds. And Pedro Feliz can pretend, just for a moment, that a slider is simply a pitch with a spinning eye, that, unlike fastballs, it is prone to break away from him, meaning it should never, ever be pulled toward shortstop for yet another double play.
So we will go with this, Giants fans: tempered optimism. Which is my final Captain Obvious statement for the day. (Speaking of Captain Obvious, does anyone else think that Joe Morgan has been replaced by a robot of former comments - during the game he kept repeating stories he told back in the mid-1990’s, including his nine-ways-to-score-from-third-base-with-two-outs gig, as if Jon Miller were using up the rest of Morgan’s robot memory for iTunes music).
Our outlook is better than after last year’s Opening Day, even better than in 2004, when starts by Michael Tucker and Deivi Cruz seemed to lurk at every corner. And besides, it could have been much worse - we could have ended up like the Oakland A’s, who may or may not have played the role of South Africa to the Yankees team-USA.
But the best thing about the first game of the year is that it represents a season of further anticipation, one even greater than Advent and Lent rolled up together: a 162-game stretch of entertainment that if we’re lucky, ends in the best tournament in the world - the Major League playoff bracket.
And Giants fans experienced nothing today that felt like a punch in the face; tossed syringes, Dodgers comebacks, and Jake Peavy Wiffle balls be damned.
Tim Denevi is a die-hard Giants fan. Please e-mail him with your opinion on any issue at firstname.lastname@example.org
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