D-Backs honor Cubs in more ways than one
PHOENIX -- One of the oddest and oddly charming ceremonial first pitches on Opening Day was at Bank One Ballpark. It's not enough that a full house had to endure the liberal sprinkling of Cubs fans throughout the stands, but the Diamondbacks' selection to throw out the first pitch was the Cubs' newly minted Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. And who was picked to catch him? Mark Grace.
Granted, Grace was part of Arizona's world champions in 2001 and is one of its broadcasters, and Sandberg is a longtime resident of the Grand Canyon state, but it still was odd having two players so deeply associated with the opposition welcoming in a new season. At first, Sandberg was insulted the "first pitch" rubber was placed halfway between the mound and home plate, but as he moved back to the one 60-feet, 6-inches away, his longtime teammate had a better idea. Grace dashed over to his spot at first base and fellow Gold Glover Sandberg moved out toward second to complete their improvised ceremony from there.
The crossbreeding tone was set during batting practice when Bob Brenly, gathering nuggets for his Cubs TV broadcast, stood behind the cage and chatted about old times with Bob Melvin, who was his bench coach during the Diamondbacks' glory days. Brenly didn't want to become the story, or acknowledge any emotions or strangeness when approached by his old Arizona beat-writing buddies.
Brenly is in the process of relocating to Chicago with his family, including wife Joan, whom he fondly refers to as "mama." Brenly chose to focus more on his son, Michael, who is finishing a stellar season as a high school player in the Phoenix area, rather than discuss his emotions upon returning to the place he'd been fired from in July.
• Dusty Baker, like Melvin and Brenly, had a long association with the Giants and exchanged warm greetings with the two before administering a pasting to Melvin in his D-Backs debut. The Cubs set a franchise record for runs (16) in an opener, the most in the majors in more than 20 years. Baker provided an even deeper oddity when he pinch hit Jerry Hairston Jr. for No. 2 hitter Todd Walker midway through the blowout. It marked the first time Chicago's No. 2 hitter hadn't played the full game on Opening Day since 1943. Although his father was an accomplished pinch hitter on the South Side of Chicago for many seasons, it's a different role for Hairston Jr., a lifetime American Leaguer, where pinch hitting is seldom used. The advice he got from his dad: Be aggressive in the pinch-hit role because it's the only at-bat you're gonna get. Hairston will start at second when there's a lefty on the mound, but it has been an adjustment not being a regular. He had to console younger brother Scott last week when the Diamondbacks' prospect was among the last cuts in camp. Despite playing well last year as a call-up, and batting nearly .400 this spring, Scott lost out in a numbers game. Jerry has no doubt his brother will be back and be a star ... he already owes him dinner for being outhit by his kid brother .390 to .352 in the Cactus League.
• Speaking of friendly wagers, although Cubs left fielder Todd Hollandsworth was a high school standout in Washington state, he's now a Cub who has married into a deep orange Illini allegiance. Not only is Marci Hollandsworth the sister of Matt Herges, but she's from Champaign, where the Herges family has been running one of the most beloved sports bars just off the University of Illinois campus for three generations. Monday was quite a day at the Tumble Inn, starting with Todd's game, followed almost immediately by the NCAA championship with the Illini taking on North Carolina. That matchup led to a spirited wager between Hollandsworth and Derrek Lee, the Cubs' towering first baseman who in 1993 turned down an invitation to play baseball and basketball at Chapel Hill after the Padres drafted him in the first round. Lee, who is 6 foot 5, would have been on a team with Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, but turned his back on basketball and never looked back. Although Lee occasionally ponders what might have been, his only regret is that he didn't save the invitation letter from Dean Smith. Although Lee rarely plays hoops, he does work out with the Kings' trainer during the offseason in Sacramento, and this winter, just to see if he could still do it, he dunked -- though he admitted it was a two-handed stuff. He not only won his bet with Hollandsworth on Monday night, but the Heels won their first national title since an 18-year-old Lee decided not to play for the team.
• For a couple of Cubs, this past October was bittersweet, and not just because of the club's collapse in the final week. Walker and Nomar Garciaparra both watched their former team win it all. Walker followed it a bit too closely in his guest role as an ESPN analyst. This created conflicting emotions: the pleasure of seeing so many close friends take the title but also the undeniable pain of thinking of what might have been after he nearly rejoined the Red Sox before signing with the Cubs last season.
By contrast, Garciaparra says he never watches a postseason he's not in, but since he had been with the Red Sox his entire career, including the first half of last season, he did follow some of their historic comeback and eventual curse-breaking championship. The only other World Series he acknowledges watching was in 2000 because his roommate from their days at Georgia Tech, Jay Payton, was in the Subway Series for the Mets. When I asked Nomar at what point after the trade or this spring he finally felt like a "Cub" or whether he even did at all, he said: "Not really. That's not for me to decide. That's up to the fans. It's their team; they decide when you're one of them or not."
He did say he was very proud to put on a Cubs uniform, with all it stood for, especially playing for a team that just experienced its first consecutive winning seasons in more than 30 years. But if Garciaparra refuses to picture himself in a Red Sox uniform, maybe he can see himself in a Seattle Mariners uniform someday. On Saturday, for the first time in his life, Nomar played against his brother, Michael, who is 10 years younger. They met in Chicago's exhibition finale at Las Vegas. The two roomed together during spring training in Arizona, and if you watch Michael in the box, you see the same toe-kicking mannerisms preparing for each pitch, even some of the same batting-glove adjustments. Asked to explain, Nomar said: "It's simple; we had the same teacher, the best, our dad," (Ramon). Much like Hairston, Nomar feels his little brother is destined to be an All-Star, maybe even better than big brother Nomar someday. That's a lot to live up to, and that's what impresses the older Garciaparra the most, how well his brother has handled that pressure.
• Watch for burly shortstop Sergio Santos to be a future star for the Diamondbacks ... and watch for him to be on time the rest of his career. For last week's spring training game at Albuquerque, Santos was running late. He missed the bus, but called ahead. Considerate, but not enough consideration to avoid the veteran wrath of D-Backs kingpins Luis Gonzalez and Troy Glaus. As penance, Santos was forced to serve as batboy early in the game, including retrieving a bat from a Glaus home run and setting land-speed records returning to the dugout with gear. If that wasn't enough, Santos was forced to wear a clock around his neck for the return trip from New Mexico.
• Jeff Moorad not only is one of five owners in Arizona, he's the first in major-league history to come from the ranks of player agents. With more than 50 former clients still playing, Moorad was used to having "a team" of players on the field, but now he has them "all in one place." Even more than most of his Diamondbacks players Monday, Moorad was like a kid on his first day of Little League, beating his alarm clock by an hour and still savoring the day despite the hammering administered by the Cubs. Along with all of Arizona's "G-Force" Gonzalez, Glaus and Shawn Green starting pitcher Javier Vazquez also is a former client. Vazquez was not only part of the Randy Johnson trade, he was the Opening Day starter who didn't make it out of the second inning. In the solitude of the clubhouse, licking his wounds, Vazquez got a visit from his new owner a short time after his early exit, assuring him that much better days were ahead and that this was not representative of his talent or what he would do for the team. Can you imagine George Steinbrenner paying a visit like that to the Yankees' clubhouse as Vazquez's only season in New York unraveled after an All-Star first half?
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.