Thursday, April 14, 2011

For Openers

Opening Day -- two words that can bring hope, joy and comfort to any baseball fan.

After a long winter in which Mother Nature left her mark across much of North America, it's time to play ball once again. Regardless of the expectations that exist for the season, positive or negative, Opening Day represents a homecoming -- a chance for fans to welcome back their team.

Hope springs eternal -- even on chilly, gray days

On Opening Day, pre-game nuances seemingly take precedence over the actual game itself. Some traditions are renewed, while others are born. It's a day of "firsts," both on and off the field. It's the 1st game, the 1st pitch, the 1st ballpark beer, etc.

Friday, April 8th marked the 50th home opener in New York Mets' history. After starting the season on the road in Florida and Philadelphia, the 3-3 Mets set foot inside Citi Field for the 1st time in 2011...eager to put a tumultuous off-season behind them.

Some Mets' fans have mixed feelings about the upcoming season

The party in Flushing started hours before the Mets would take the playing field.

Beneath an overcast sky in the parking lot, fans dressed in combinations of blue, orange and black. The 42-degree temperature seemed more appropriate for a football game, rather than baseball. Still, it was a festive atmosphere.

Opening Day draws just about everyone to the ballpark

Some people held pre-game tailgating sessions...allowing the aroma of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to fill the air.

A father and son have a pre-game catch

Elsewhere, fathers and sons played catch together...while others wandered around the ballpark exterior, taking in the Opening Day sights and sounds.

Once the gates opened, thousands entered Citi Field through the ballpark's main entrance, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. As fans collected their Mr. Met bobblehead giveaway item, many then scattered to different areas of the park.

The Jackie Robinson Rotunda was a busy place on this afternoon

Everywhere you looked, there were reminders of this special day in the season. Opening Day logos and graphics were proudly displayed on the main scoreboards, as well as the accompanying electronic message boards. On the field, "Opening Weekend" logos were painted into the grass near the Mets' and Nationals' dugout.

Opening Day has its own logo

My favorite reminder, however, is the bunting that surrounded the field. There's just something about those red, white and blue half-circles that make an event seem more important. The patriotic fabric hung from every level in the seating area. It is a baseball tradition that has spanned decades.

Celebratory bunting surrounded Citi Field

Another tradition that has lasted throughout the Mets' history is the Opening Day floral arrangement, which is presented to the team's manager before the beginning of every season. The blue-and-orange flowers are in the shape of a horseshoe, to represent good luck during the upcoming year.

On this day, new Mets' manager Terry Collins received the gift from a family that is synonymous with the franchise's existence. Members of the Shea family took part in the ceremony, maintaining the Mets' connection to the late Bill Shea, the New York lawyer responsible for bringing the team into the Major Leagues in 1962.

Mets' manager Terry Collins and Shea family members with the floral horseshoe

Next, it was time for another Opening Day tradition. Each team's entire roster -- from the starting lineup, all the way through the equipment managers -- are announced and brought onto the field. The Nationals, in their gray uniforms with navy blue, red and white trim, occupied the 3rd base line. The Mets, wearing their off-white pinstriped uniforms with blue-and-orange trim, set foot along the 1st base line.

The Mets and Nationals line up on the field for pre-game intros

With the Star-Spangled Banner about to take place, military service men and women walked a gigantic American flag across the outfield. Between the flag, and the players who were lined up along the was a moment that illustrated baseball as still being part of the national pastime.

A giant American flag makes its presence for the Star-Spangled Banner

Next, the Mets looked to their past to lead them into the future. Throwing out the ceremonial 1st pitch was Ralph Kiner, a Hall-of-Fame player who had been a member of the Mets' broadcast team since the franchise's inception. He had been a part of the Mets' 49 previous home the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and Citi Field. Kiner's throw would reach former Met and current coach Mookie Wilson on the fly, drawing a loud ovation from the sold-out crowd of 41,075.

Ralph Kiner throws a strike to Mookie Wilson

After all of the pre-game pomp and pageantry, the Mets would take the field as the home team for the 1st time in 2011.

The Mets take the field

R.A. Dickey would get the game started for New York, delivering the 1st pitch among a sea of flashbulbs to Nationals' shortstop Ian Desmond. A fly-out to the warning track, and the Mets' season at Citi Field was underway.

R.A. Dickey throws the 1st pitch at Citi Field in 2011

For many of the players, most of the Opening Day butterflies dissipate once the game gets started. The pitchers pitch, the hitters hit, the statistics count. It becomes just another contest in a 162-game marathon.

Eventually, it turns into a normal baseball game

As I watched from Section 516, the Nationals would get the better of the Mets, winning 6-2. Fireballing 24-year-old Jordan Zimmermann outpitched the knuckleballer Dickey, and knocked in the 1st two runs of the game with a bloop single to right field in the 2nd inning.

Mets' fans hoped for a better Opening Day result

While Mets' fans left Citi Field disappointed in the game's result, there was still that comfort that baseball was back for yet another year. Day-in and day-out for roughly the next six months, the Mets will take the field -- both at home and on the road. It's the only professional sport where there is that constant daily presence, giving the fans an extra connection with their team and its players.

Opening Day is not about the game, but rather a celebration of the sport itself. Baseball dates back to at least the 1800s...and while the rules, teams and players have changed over the years, its fundamental aspects remain roughly the same.

Welcome back!

Back for another baseball season

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