The game finally becomes the main event
Baseball's troubles won't go away anytime soon, but Sunday's season opener allowed for some positive thinking.
NEW YORK -- With every pitch Sunday night, the numerals on the back of Randy Johnson's pinstriped jersey tilted toward his right shoulder, the numbers 4 and 1 on his jersey recoiling from his left-handed effort. He seemed saturated with adrenaline in the first inning, overthrowing against leadoff batter Johnny Damon. But as Johnson quickly found his bearings, so did we all.
Pitch selection became more important than urine tests, the ball-strike counts overwhelmed BALCO, and we got to care more about Hideki Matsui's bat and glove than Dr. Pellman's résumé. Alex Sanchez dominated much of the pregame conversation, but by the time David Wells was lifted in the fourth inning, Sanchez already had graduated to a trivia-question answer.
The Yankees beat the Red Sox, 9-2, and the first page in a 162-game sequel to Boston's championship season contained many paragraphs.
• Scary thought: Johnson did not have anything close to his best stuff, his best fastballs reaching about 93-94 mph, many of his sliders spinning flatly, particularly early in the game. And yet Johnson was probably better than about 90 percent of the starts the Yankees got from their rotation last year, striking out six batters in six innings, handing a 4-1 lead to the backend of the bullpen.
• Weather beaten: Wells typically has had problems pitching in hot and humid weather in his career, greatly preferring brisk conditions. It rained all day Saturday and rained again much of Sunday, the dampness exacerbated by temperatures in the high 30s; as usual, Wells did not wear long sleeves.
But he seemed to have a very hard time in the cold, blowing on his left hand constantly, struggling to throw his curveball sharply and command his fastball. When Wells can't throw the ball where he wants to throw it, he always has trouble.
• Best reception: Tino Martinez, back with the Yankees after a three-year absence, got the biggest ovation of any player when he was introduced before the game, and the Yankee Stadium fans started a Tino chant when Martinez entered the game as a defensive replacement in the top of the seventh.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Martinez dove toward the foul line and grabbed a grounder as he slid along the dirt, before turning and flipping to pitcher Tanyon Sturtze for the out. For that, Yankee Stadium fans tried summoning Martinez for a curtain call.
• Worst reception: After the Yankees swapped David Wells to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999, he was welcomed back to the Stadium like a returning family member, getting cheered like he was still a Yankee. But by making a choice to sign with the Red Sox in the offseason, Wells crossed the line drawn by many Yankees' fans, and he was booed thickly when he took the mound in the first inning and booed even more when he was relieved in the fifth. But many years from now, expect those fans to love him on Old Timers' Day.
• Good first step: In four plate appearances, Jason Giambi had a ground single, got hit by pitches twice (both times by Wells), and lined out. If he hits early in the year and avoids the situation when pressure will build on him, Giambi should be OK this season.
• Résumé-building: Says here Matsui will win the American League Most Valuable Player Award this year, and he started making his case Sunday night, getting three hits, including a two-run home run in the eighth inning. He also scored three runs, and leaped high above the left-field wall to take a two-run homer away from Kevin Millar in the second inning.
• Counterattack: The Yankees had no answer for David Ortiz last year, with five right-handers in their starting rotation and right-handers filling all the prime spots in the bullpen. Ortiz hit a double in his first at-bat against Johnson, but later struck out against the Big Unit. And the Yankees have added left-handers Mike Stanton and Buddy Groom since last year. At least the Yankees will figure to have a shot to contain Ortiz a little bit in '05.
• There were no formal handshakes between the Yankees and Red Sox before the season opener. Thankfully.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is being released in paperback on May 1 and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.
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