This is a happy story, but not one with a happy ending, so let’s dispense with that at the beginning. Everything you’re about to read is about a game that the Yankees will lose, 3-2, with the winning (or rather, losing) run scoring on a play that couldn’t help but echo all the fly-by-night strangeness of pandemic-era baseball. Indeed, as Toronto’s Randal Grichuk doubled to lead off the top of the 10th inning and the scoreboard insisted that the go-ahead run had scored, there appeared an overwhelming aura of confusion. So much of the afternoon had felt … usual. Or at least close to it. Then it was last year all over again.
For an instant, the momentarily forgotten fact of extra innings commencing with a runner on second was the most notable holdover of the best-forgotten 2020 season (really, the regrettable year as a whole). The fans at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day were real, physically there, with honest-to-god sounds coming from their masked mouths. They reached for foul balls, they hammed it up for cameras, they played along to scoreboard games. The music between innings was louder than it had been in 2020, competing with the real-life din of conversation.
We all know a bit too much more about tragedy than we did a year ago, and as this baseball season opened in its proper timeslot, we were hopefully blessed with enough perspective, however ill-gotten, not to conflate one poor outcome with anything more than it needs to be. It’s always worth remembering those who have really suffered this year, and once you’ve taken care of that necessary mental exercise, you can feel free to recall that the 1998 Yankees began the year 1-4. Great teams lose games. Meanwhile, the Mets and Nationals saw their entire opening series postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Washington clubhouse, an unpleasant reminder that even as a new season brought the requisite hope, the pandemic’s end remains as evasive as a Gerrit Cole knuckle-curve.
So, the game at the heart of this story ends poorly, but what if we still promised a different kind of happy conclusion? What if, for a couple hours, very real fans made very real noise during a very real game that would factor into the very real standings, but the essence nonetheless revealed itself in one ephemeral moment before a pitch was even thrown? What if the thing that we all had been waiting for wasn’t a happy ending, but rather a happy beginning?
Days later, Cole was willing to state the obvious. He was clearly irritated after his Opening Day start, a curtain-raiser that looked excellent for most of his 5 1/3 innings. He struck out eight batters by relying on a very effective changeup and knuckle-curve, both of which (along with his always-elite fastball) made up for some trouble he had locating his slider.
Yet even the most intense competitors have to eat, and life does move on. Cole’s father -- a longtime devotee of the pinstripes who famously raised young Gerrit to be a “YANKEE FAN TODAY TOMORROW FOREVER” -- was finally in the Bronx watching his son pitch for the team, and even if the result wasn’t perfect, there were a lot of positives to take from the long-awaited afternoon.
“We still had dinner,” Gerrit said, laughing. “We had dinner and a glass of wine and talked about some of the good pitches that we threw that day.” But they also talked about those things Mark Cole couldn’t have picked up from afar, such as the father’s experience of walking through Yankee Stadium’s Suite Level on a game day, checking out the impressive ring of photos celebrating Yankees greats.
“All in all,” the younger Cole said, “it was a pretty great day for him. Obviously, would have liked to cap it off with a win. But it was a long time in the making, so a special day.”
That special sensation transcended the generations. There are no do-overs in the regular season, other than the other 161 games, but while Cole could be seen repeatedly slamming his glove in frustration on the dugout bench after his outing ended, he looked back at his performance through the rose-colored lenses of perspective and familiarity.
“It was like life was normal for a few hours,” Cole said. “I hope it continues to go that path. But it was like revisiting an old routine that I hadn’t been a part of in quite some time. It’ll be an Opening Day that I remember for probably the rest of my career.”
It began early, as soon as he stepped out of the dugout to begin his pregame warmups. Walking toward the bullpen, the all-business pitcher received a raucous reception, the first time New York fans had been able to cheer their not-so-new ace in person. The day before his Opening Day start, as Cole predicted what that moment might feel like, he anticipated a mix of anxiety and appreciation, one last memory of the alien nature of 2020 baseball.
“It was something that you didn’t really realize would have as much of an impact as it did, and I think that we’re more grateful to share this experience with the fans going forward,” Cole said. “It’s something that I’ll always remember, and every time I see a fan or sign an autograph for a kid, I’ll remember that, at one point, this was taken away from us.”
After the game, Cole bemoaned the sixth-inning slider that Teoscar Hernández hit over the wall in left, and the pitcher rued what he called an uncompetitive Ball 4 to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that ended his afternoon. Pressure is a privilege, he had pointed out in his introductory press conference, and Yankees fans had waited 16 months since that December 2019 afternoon to see and celebrate their ace in person. It’s hard to imagine anything that Cole could have done from the hill in that moment that could have made anyone unhappy; even a leadoff home run at least would have made for an interesting story.
For the pitcher, though, that return to normalcy meant a return to fire-breathing necessity in every moment.
“There wasn’t a lot of emotion attached to the first pitch,” Cole said. “Other than it was a ball, and I wanted to throw a strike.”
With the score tied, 2-2, in the bottom of the ninth, Gary Sánchez stepped in to lead off the frame. The catcher had accounted for all of the Yankees’ offense up to that point and had even added a remarkable throw to nail Grichuk attempting to steal second in the seventh inning.
Blue Jays pitcher Jordan Romano started Sánchez with a slider low and away for Ball 1, then the Yankees’ backstop swung through a fastball for a strike. Three more balls followed, and Sánchez, in his first game back from a frustrating season, was on base to lead off the crucial frame. Mike Tauchman entered as a pinch-runner and quickly swiped second and third base, but the Yankees couldn’t drive him home.
Still, with two hits and a walk, as well as some fine work behind the plate, it was a splendid way to turn a forgettable page for Sánchez.
“I thought he was excellent. He was on time, recognizing the pitch,” Aaron Boone said after the game. All spring, the manager had been insisting that he was seeing things from Sánchez that he never had before. And on the day before the opener, he watched the catcher put together what Boone called one of his best batting practice performances. “He kind of carried that into today, where really all of his at-bats, he was on time and obviously dangerous.”
Sánchez batted just .147 in 2020 with an OPS+ that was almost 30% below the league average, and by the time the postseason rolled around, he was struggling even to crack the lineup. Of particular note was the fact that Kyle Higashioka had all but cemented his role as Cole’s personal catcher. It was obviously an unusual year, to say nothing of the fact that Sánchez was working with new catching coach Tanner Swanson on a totally different setup behind the plate, but the two-time All-Star and runner-up for the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Award seemed to be running out of chances.
But Sánchez approached Opening Day with a characteristically positive attitude: “I think we have a new season coming, you know? Brand-new season coming up, and what I can do is go out there and give the best I have; give 100% when I go out there and play this game.”
With Cole sure to start the season on the mound, though, Boone had a decision to make. Whether it was a nod to Sánchez’s strong spring training, or an effort to boost the beleaguered catcher’s confidence, he rolled with the Dominican Republic native on Opening Day, and the rewards came immediately. After Cole allowed a run in the top of the second, Sánchez stepped to the plate with a runner on first base for his first at-bat of 2021. The sun had barely begun to peek through the early-afternoon clouds just minutes earlier, casting the slightest shadows over the green grass. The pregame rain -- perhaps a novice screenwriter’s ham-handed metaphor for washing away the recent misery -- had given way to a chilly, yet pleasant afternoon.
Hyun Jin Ryu started Sánchez off with a 91 mph fastball that had plenty of plate -- precisely the type of pitch that the catcher had inexplicably struggled to square up in 2020. This time, though, Sánchez smashed the ball a few rows deep beyond the left-field wall.
“If you could write a script on how to get last year out of your mind,” said Paul O’Neill on the YES Network broadcast, “would it be a two-run homer on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium? I think it would be.”
Gary, to paraphrase WFAN radio voice John Sterling, was once again scary.
Sánchez would follow up his debut with another homer in the season’s second game, and just as notably, he avoided any strikeouts in the first two contests. Such a pace would obviously be unsustainable, but while the catcher’s 2021 would no doubt feature some less-happy days, it was hard not to be elated by the dawn of a new year.
“I’ve been watching it all spring, you know, saying since the first day of Spring Training, the guy looks like a different man,” said Aaron Judge. “He came ready to go, kind of got our offense going with that two-run homer. That was huge.”
It was the during the seventh inning that a message came over the Yankee Stadium press box’s speakers: The day’s paid attendance was 10,850. The State of New York had limited capacity to 20%, so the figure represented a sellout. But the noise was real, as was the emotion in the building, and that feeling of presence resonated in the dugout.
“It felt like a bigger crowd than that,” Boone said. “You could feel their energy, you could feel them waiting to erupt there when we had some chances to take the game late. We just couldn’t push through for them today. But it was not something I think any of us take for granted, being able to have our fan base and people in here watching because it’s different. It’s better. It’s the way it needs to be.”
The message was echoed up and down the roster. Baseball players are performers. They are, of course, capable of feats of strength that defy understanding -- even making contact against a big league pitcher is cause for celebration -- but they are meant to be cheered. The stats from 2020, to say nothing of the Dodgers’ shiny World Series rings, are part of baseball history, but the moments, themselves, dissipated into an invisible mist of canned sound in cavernous, empty ballparks. Having fans back in the house, for at least one day, could make up for any runners left on base.
“Man, everybody missed it,” Judge said. “It’s those fans, that energy, that makes the game. They’re a part of the game, just like all of us. So, it’s a bad result, but glad to have the fans back.”
It’s always essentially a coin-flip whether any given team starts the season in their own ballpark. This year, because the Blue Jays are playing their “home” games in Dunedin, Fla., due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, the Yankees’ opener could just as easily have been played in a Spring Training ballpark that hardly would have felt like a transition to the regular season. Instead, the hungry players got to head north, metaphorically and literally. They enjoyed an off-day at home before working out at the Stadium, then experienced what was probably the most normal day any of them had enjoyed in some 13 months.
Boone grew up in a baseball family, and then played for years in Cincinnati, the city that, more than any other, treats Opening Day like a civic holiday.
“It’s a special day,” he said. “And one of the things I tried to make sure to get across to our guys is what an honor and a privilege it is to suit up on Opening Day in the major leagues. On top of that, for the New York Yankees, it’s a big deal. It’s something to be proud of. It’s something to be celebrated.”
The Yankees’ manager learned that lesson from a life in baseball, but the celebratory nature would have been clear even to someone watching Opening Day for the first time. The scoreboard celebrated birthdays and the Bleacher Creatures saluted players such as Jay Bruce, Clint Frazier and even DJ LeMahieu with their first Opening Day roll calls. During introductions, some of the loudest shrieks came for Luke Voit, who hobbled to the foul line on a crutch as he recovered from surgery, the “Luuuuuuke” chorus making the Stadium sound full. Bernie Williams threw a “virtual” first pitch, because we’re not all the way back yet, but as Method Man said optimistically in the pregame “Squad Up” hype video, “It’s been a dark 12 months, but 2021, a new day is dawning. And it’s time to rise together. Because you know, they couldn’t keep us away forever.”
Even the pregame moments of silence for Hank Steinbrenner and Dr. Bobby Brown felt novel: There’s something special about asking for quiet from humans in the house making noise.
Baseball is back, more than ever before. There will be wins and losses in 2021, home runs and strikeouts. One can hope that the months that pass bring with them an ever-increasing capacity limit, such that when the weather gets cold again and the games’ drama cranks up to 11, the ballpark will shake under the weight of some 50,000 excited -- and healthy -- fans. An Opening Day game that ended 3-2 on the wrong side couldn’t possibly blot out the joy of rebirth. In game 1 of 162, the wrong team won, but this play’s denouement won’t be written until October.
Instead, it’s the opening lines that are worth dwelling on. In particular, one fleeting word from Yankees public address announcer Paul Olden, an ever-so-slightly altered version of an introduction that he has offered countless times. Even those who didn’t hear the exact words surely felt them, and they will continue to as the summer lifts us all out of a dreadful year.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Olden said. “And welcome back to Yankee Stadium.”