Happy Opening Day

Tom Seaver in 1969 (AP).

First of all, I’d like to take a moment to thank the folks at This Week in Baseball for giving me the space and opportunity to write about one of my passions-baseball. In order to try and give everyone an idea of what I’ll be doing in this column, let’s try a little exercise.

Close your eyes for a moment, and take a stroll in your mind’s eye toward any image that for you, remains as vivid as the moment in which you first experienced it. Maybe it’s Pedro in Fenway in 1999, when he stood atop Mt. Olympus and toyed with batters using an arsenal that you made you gasp and laugh at the same time. Perhaps it’s Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds in 1954, so small in that endless-looking centerfield and yet so immense in stature that a simple gesture of standing, knee bent, hands on hips seemed to be the most elegant, powerful, graceful gesture ever exhibited. Maybe it’s a curveball by Sandy Koufax or Doc Gooden; perhaps it’s the sense of contained power waiting to be unleashed that you first saw in Albert Pujols’ batting stance. Maybe it’s a name that conjured for you black and white images of a game that seemed almost mythical: Duke, Lefty, Whitey, Red, Big Train, and of course, Babe. Names and numbers. Swings and smiles. The deliveries of Warren Spahn and Dontrelle Willis . Jackie Robinson running the bases, hands flying, hook-sliding into third. There is a connection-an overlapping of times and moments and performances that appear unique and familiar at the same time-that colors our love and appreciation of baseball. Roger Angell called it the web of the game. Over the course of the 2008 season, I will be sharing some of these connections with you. And along the way, hopefully we’ll all learn a little more about ourselves and the game we love.

Every ballgame-the statistics that are accrued, the plays that are made, the wins and losses that are recorded-offers us the opportunity to reflect on the past and inspires questions concerning the future. With the possible exception of one-game playoffs and postseason games, no single day or week provides as many opportunities for these discussions and reflections as baseball’s Opening Day. Scorecards and ledgers are clean on Opening Day, waiting for the first pitches and swings that will begin to write the story of the ensuing baseball season. For all of us-players, fans, vendors and writers-Opening Day represents a clean slate and the opportunity to add new chapters to an always evolving encyclopedia of moments, memories and achievements. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this new beginning resides in the selection of the Opening Day pitcher. There is an honor and responsibility set upon the ace pitcher for each team as he is handed to ball for that first start of the season-a directive that says, “get us started off right… set the tone for the season… show us what you can do.” And as aces toe the rubber for the first time in 2008, we-emboldened by the sight of our guy peering in for that first sign-will feel the hope and the expectancy of what is to come.

In every season from 1968-1977, the New York Mets handed the ball to Tom Seaver on Opening Day. He was the franchise, the All-American boy from Southern California who came to New York and almost immediately helped change the fortunes of a moribund franchise. And for 10 straight years, Tom Seaver pulled on his jersey with the number 41, and strode to the mound to begin the Mets’ season. For a symbol of all that is possible, Tom Terrific was the perfect choice. Over the course of those 10 consecutive starts, Seaver recorded a 6-0 mark, and the Mets went 7-3. Facing the likes of Juan Marichal, Steve Blass, Steve Rogers, and Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver took the ball and delivered-driving toward the mound, right knee scraping the dirt, throwing high fastballs, breaking off darting sliders, baffling hitters-on the promise of Opening Day.

Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton matched up on Opening Day on four different occasions. Imagine that sight-crisp April temperatures welcoming thousands of fans sitting, waiting, and then cheering for two future Hall of Famers as they made their alternating turns on the mound. Tom Terriffic got the best of Lefty in those four marquee match-ups, winning two and losing none, while helping the Mets team to a 3-1 record. The final convergence between the two pitchers on Opening day took place on April 5, 1983 at Shea Stadium. And if the start of any season holds a certain magic, this particular afternoon stands above the rest. On April 5, 1983-after a five-and-a-half year tour with the Cinicnnati Reds-Tom Seaver was back where he belonged: pitching for the New York Mets on Opening Day. Although he was thicker, older, and slower in his gait to the mound, he was still Tom Terriffic. And over the course of six shutout innings on that afternoon, Tom Seaver reached back and reminded us of the magic that can happen when baseball begins its journey across a new season.

Over his 20 year career, Tom Seaver made 16 Opening Day starts-more than any other pitcher in history. Whether it was in the blue and orange for the Mets, the red and white for Cincinnati, or the red, white, and blue striped variety of the White Sox jersey, Tom Seaver began the season for his team with the fulfillment of all that was expected-he gave his team a chance to build upon the promise of early spring.

Happy Opening Day(s) to everyone. While you’re watching your team and wondering if this could be the year, take a moment to sit back, smile, and relax as you watch your own club’s ace work his stuff. For me, it remains one of the best parts about the baseball season-it conjures so many memories and blends so many images into a tapestry that never fails to elicit the same fascination and love that began while watching number 41 take hill year after year.

Tom Seaver’s Opening Days with the New York Mets

11 Starts
76 IP
66 H
14 BB
68 K
6-0
2.13 ERA
Tm W/L: 8-3

Tom Seaver Opening Day Starts as a Met versus Steve Carlton

4 Starts
29 2/3 IP
21 H
4 ER
5 BB
30 K
2-0
1.21 ERA
Tm W/L: 3-1

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