Baseball is back in the Bronx, and boy does it feel good.
Becky and I headed up to the stadium early last night. The idea was to beat the traffic, nab a choice parking spot, and hightail it to Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too in Harlem for some down home cooking before the game started. Best laid plans, you know.
We hit the road about 4:30 and didn't have too much traffic to deal with across the GW, but our preferred parking lot was full by the time we drove by around 5:40. We eventually settled on a lot in front of a strip mall further up 161st and caught the 4 and the 2 down to Miss Mamie's, arriving at about 6:15. After inhaling their complimentary cornbread (served too hot to touch) and devouring some fried (for me) and roasted (for Becky) chicken, mac n' cheese, collard greens and cornbread stuffing, washing it all down with a couple of Stewart's rootbeers and some of Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Punch, we dropped our green on the table and split for the Stadium at about 7:10.
We then waited for the 2 train for 25 minutes. You see there was some sort of watermain break in midtown and the northbound trains just weren't running with any sort of regularity. After a 3 train finally showed up at 7:35 (we needed a 2), we bolted for the B & D two blocks across town, only to find out that we'd have to go downtown one stop to go uptown at all, and those trains weren't exactly running on a rush hour schedule either.
As a result we missed the team introductions (anyone got the skinny on the receptions for folks such as Tino, Giambi, Rodriguez, Johnson, Joe Girardi, etc.?), ceremonial first pitch, national anthem, and even Randy Johnson's first pitch (burn - I think I've only missed a first pitch once before and hoo-boy was I mad that time). We also missed roll call in the bleachers. And, of course, once we got to our seats in section 37 of the right field bleachers, the same ones we've had for several years running now, we discovered the row was full.
Being an old pro, I quickly sussed out the violating ticket holder (I swear sometimes I should get an hourly usher's salary when I'm at games), squeezed in among the familiar faces, and got right into action as Randy Johnson finished off the first inning with strikeouts of Edgar Renteria (about whom Becky is perfecting a parody of the diarrhea song from Parenthood, "when you want to get to first and you get struck-out by Sturtze, Renteria! Renteria!") and Manny Ramirez.
After last year's shennegans with the out-of-town scoreboard, Cracker Jacks, and the new lightening boards (as Jay Jaffe calls them) along the front of the loge level, there was just one minor change that I was able to detect this year. That is, above the orange-on-black info board in center field, there is a new full-color strip that gives the pitch type and speed. Thus I can tell you with certainty that Randy Johnson was in the mid-90s, David Wells was leaning heavily on his curveball, and Matt Mantei was punching in at 97 miles per hour, though from my location in right field I could get whiplash from checking that thing too often.
As for the game, it was near perfect for opening day . . . er night (I still don't like that). Close early, but never too close to cause much concern, and except for one seemingly interminable at-bat by Alex Rodriguez in the seventh, never boring.
The Sox got on the board first after David Ortiz lead off the second with a double. But not before eventual 2005 AL MVP Hideki Matsui timed a would-be Kevin Millar homer at the wall in right to rob the Boston first baseman of a two-run dinger. Jason Varitek followed with a broken-bat out to short that, in the confusion of the bat knocking into Johnson on the mound and ricocheting toward short, moved Ortiz to third. Jay Payton, in for Trot Nixon against the lefty Johnson, then plated Ortiz with a single to left.
The Yanks came right back in the bottom of the second. Matsui (how many times . . .) lead off with a single. After a Posada fly to shallow right, Jason Giambi came up to a partial standing ovation. One fan in my section, who had switched from his customary Giambi jersey to a Johnson jersey, said he only made the change because Johnson was starting, but that he had more respect for Giambi now than he had before, proof that there's always a second chance waiting for those willing to admit their mistakes. Giambi singled Matsui to third on a 1-1 count, setting up a sac fly from Bernie, who sadly looked like a true number 8 hitter all day. Tie game.
In the third the Yankees piled on. Derek Jeter lead off with a double, to add to the single from his first at-bat. After a four-pitch strikeout by Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield doubled Jeter home to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead they would never relinquish. Ruben Sierra, who went 0-for-3 batting clean-up against David Wells, followed with a groundout that moved Sheffield to third, who was then singled home by MVPatsui. Jorge Posada then hit a grounder to short that Edger Renteria ("when the Yankees are in first and the Red Sox are the worst . . .") bobbled, giving Posada a home-scorer single (looked like an E6 to me). Wells then hit Giambi with an 0-2 pitch to load the bases, but escaped by fanning Bernie. But wait! He didn't! With the count 2-2, Wells balked. 4-1 Yanks.
Johnson more or less cruised through the fourth and fifth, allowing pesky but meaningless doubles by Jason Varitek and Mark Bellhorn. Then the Yankees drove David Wells from the game in the bottom of the fifth. After a three-pitch lead-off strike out by Mastui (nothing to see here, move along), Posada doubled. Wells plunked Giambi for the second consecutive at-bat (I'm assuming on curveballs that didn't curve) and Bernie looked at five pitches do draw a walk (Bernie's day: Sac fly, 2 Ks, 2 walks). That loaded the bases and brought Terry Francona out of the dugout to yank Wells out of the Game to a chorus of boos and cries of "traitor." Francona then went to recently reacquired LOOGY/Serial Killer/SNL alum Mike Myers to face Tony Womack. What a great spot for Andy Phillips! One out, bases loaded, Womack due up, lefty on the mound.
No luck. Womack grounds into a 6-4-3 DP, inning over.
Johnson pitched around a two-out walk and single in the sixth, finishing his Yankee debut with this line:
Word has it Johnson is still warming up as he pitched fewer spring innings than he would have liked. Holding the Red Sox to one run in six innings with 94 MPH fastballs on a cold night sounds pretty good for a pitcher who's not quite at full strength yet. I think I'm gonna like this Unit fellow.
More fun from the Yanks in the bottom of the sixth. With NL import Blaine Neal on the mound, Jeter lead off by watching five pitches for a walk, then stole second. Rodriguez followed with an RBI-single to center that Johnny Damon first booted, then bobbled, allowing Alex to coast into second. Sheffield then flew out to deep left and Rodriguez hustled to third on the lackadaisical Manny Ramirez. Francona then brought in Alan Embree to keep Sierra batting righty only to have Sierra finally break out and double home Rodriguez. A Matsui foul-out to Varitek (never happened) and a Giambi fly out to deep left (that's right opposite field!), surrounded a Posada walk to end the inning.
With Giambi having made the last out of the sixth, Joe Torre sent in Tino Martinez to play first prompting a tremendous ovation from the remaining fans (6-1 lead on a cold rainy night, you know, plus a lot of those empty seats probably belonged to Sox fans). Several "Tino-Tino" chants were heard around the stadium and after Tanyon Sturtze, delivered his first pitch, the bleachers added Tino's name to the roll, cheering heartily as he raised his glove in recognition.
Sturtze, who appears to be a completely different pitcher from the one who came over from the Dodgers last May (he's an effective junk balling lefty . . . I keeed!), started the seventh by struking out Mueller (pronounced MYOO-ler until you can convince me John Hughes made a movie called Ferris Biller) and Bellhorn. Johnny Damon then hit a hot shot down the first base line that Tino caught in an airborne dive behind the bag, flipping to Sturtze for the final out of the inning. The crowd, of course, went nuts, prompting me to ask Becky if anyone's ever done a curtain call for a defensive play (thus far, still no). In telling contrast, Giambi made a diving play in the third only to have the ball bound over him for what should have been a single, but, like Renteria's non-error in the bottom of that inning, got the home-town treatment: E3. Fortunately, Randy Johnson's ERA didn't need the extra help.
Sturtze then mowed down the heart of the Red Sox order (Renteria, Ramirez, Ortiz) in the eighth with the help of another spectacular diving play, this time from Alex Rodriguez at third. Tanyon (note: do not name your son "Tanyon") finished with two perfect innings, striking out three of the six batters he faced (of course he also threw just 56 percent of his pitches for strikes and needed a pair of great plays to do it, but I remain impressed).
With Manny (who went 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts) and Ortiz (1 for 4 with two Ks of his own) out of the way, the Yankees up 6-1, and the rain, which had held off most of the night, picking up, the crowd started rooting for outs on both sides of the ball.
But the Yanks weren't done, thanks in large part to Matt "Sea Cow" Mantei, who walked Sheffield and, after a fly out by Sierra (1 for 5 as the Yanks clean-up hitter), gave up a booming homer to dead center by Hideki MVPatsui, who went 3 for 5 with 3 runs scored and 3 driven in (and two saved at the left field wall) to be the clear choice for player of the game. Mantei then struck out Sippy-cup Posada (picture the head) and walked Tino, still getting the hero's welcome, and Bernie, the latter prompting Bubba Crosby's customary pinch-running/defensive replacement appearance. Tony Womack, 3 for 5 with a stolen base despite my repeated pleas for Andy Phillips, then singled off lefty John Halama to load the bases. Derek Jeter then hit a dribbler back through the box that Halama Bucknered for the Yankees ninth run before retiring Rodriguez on a groundout.
Joe Torre then went to Tom Gordon with an eight-run lead, leading me to worry that he learned nothing from last year's QuanGorMo burnout, despite the high hopes I had seeing Sturtze eat two innings with a five-run lead. Gordon struggled at first, walking Millar on five pitches and giving up a single to Varitek to put runners on the corners. Then he bore down, getting pinch-hitter Trot Nixon to go away with a harmless sac fly to run the score to 9-2, and finishing off Mueller and Bellhorn, striking out the latter.
All around good stuff. Johnson was solid. Sturtze was impressive. Gordon got it together, posting a picket fence line (1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K). Every Yankee who came to the plate, including defensive replacement Tino Martinez, got on base, and every starter except Sierra (who doubled in the sixth) reached at least twice. The Red Sox, meanwhile, burned through every man in their pen except closer Keith Foulke, with only Myers avoiding damage, having induced his only batter, Womack, into a double play.
Unfortunately the rain prevented me from bringing the digital camera, so I don't have any pictures, but for yucks here's my scorecard: