Opening day is always cause for slightly irrational joy, a symbolic reminder that sun and rebirth is nearly upon us. The poets have a field day, the zealots revel in the inside baseball, and even the dilettantes latch onto the pomp and circumstance.
But this year, it hit home even more powerfully, and poignantly. And just when it looked like the Mariners had graffiti’d all over the poetry with a lackluster seven innings, they burst into life in the eighth inning and showed exactly what the empty stadiums lacked last season.
That electric six-run rally, one of the most rousing in recent memory, awakened what had been the dour mood of the socially distanced (and increasingly impatient) crowd. And it was a powerful demonstration of the vibrancy of a new season — especially this new season.
This being baseball, that all comes with some heartache, too — in this case a home run yielded by new closer Rafael Montero in the ninth that erased the lead they had just taken. But the Mariners pushed across a run in the 10th on Jake Fraley’s bases-loaded walk, and a night of hope and then gloom became one of triumph, 8-7.
The reopening of baseball, on time and not in isolation, is a tangible sign that normalcy is creeping back. It’s not here yet, as Mariners manager Scott Servais reminded on Thursday, “but we’re getting close. And I think we can see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
You could see it in the vendor outside the stadium selling sausages and snacks, and the folks congregating outside the ballpark in the afternoon, waiting for the doors to open. You could see it when the gates were thrown open and the people who had come to see the game in person — there’s a word for that, but it escapes me — oh, yeah, fans, poured in.
Sure, only 8,174 of them, but it beats the cardboard cutouts, which had their utility but will live on as a relic of a (fingers crossed) bygone era. The cancellation of the Mets-Nationals opener earlier in the day for coronavirus reasons, and other disquieting news on the COVID-19 front, show compellingly that it hasn’t gone by yet.
But they indeed played in Seattle, with all the trappings of opening day. As another nod to COVID, much of the festivities were on video, including a tribute to front-line health workers, who ringed the field in the shape of a heart. It wasn’t live, but it was still touching.
So, of course, was the Mariners’ greatest opening day tradition of them all, the Make-A-Wish child executing the ceremonial “First Run Around the Bases.” In this case, it was done virtually by 9-year-old Evan Manfredo, nearly five years past his leukemia diagnosis, with three tough years of treatment behind him. Hopefully next year, we’ll get to see the run in person, but for now, let’s call it the rite at the end of the tunnel.
And then, of course, there was a baseball game, and what a rouser it was, as the Mariners, going down weakly for six innings, broke through with a run in the seventh, and then exploded for six in the eighth.
Pete Rose once said that opening day is “like Christmas, only warmer.” Charlie Hustle never played outdoors in Seattle in April — but the Mariners heated up the joint, seizing the opportunity to start the year with a positive jolt of energy. Opening day always has outsized ramifications, leading to conclusions that aren’t commensurate with its status as .006 of the season. Which, translated, means they weren’t nearly as bad as Giants’ starter Kevin Gausman made them look. Nor will they carve out a miracle every night. Montero showed the cruelty of the game when he coughed up the lead in the ninth on Alex Dickerson’s homer.
But through all the peaks and valleys, eliciting the full gamut of emotions, it felt like something approaching normal for a baseball game, which was never the case last year. The assembled crowd — the first fans at the ol’ Seattle ballyard in 550 days — sounded like more than just 8,000-plus, though the Mariners didn’t give them a chance to fully erupt until the magical eighth.
The more prevalent noises were the rumblings of restlessness and frustration — an all-too-common reaction over the years. Overall, however, for nearly four hours it sounded natural, more like the time-honored rhythm of baseball, certainly more so than the ersatz pumped-in noises of 2020.
Before the game, Servais had marveled at the annual excitement of starting the season, reminiscing about listening to his transistor radio to catch the Brewers opener while growing up in Wisconsin. His players, he said, were bursting to find out how all this will play out, how the work they had put in would manifest itself when it counts.
“You know, spring training and all the other stuff, you’re building toward tonight and then we play tonight’s game and we have 161 more to go,” he mused.
And that, more than anything, is what gave Thursday its power. Sure, you can dream about young players on the rise, and cling to the belief that the Mariners’ turnaround is approaching, this result notwithstanding.
But the real beauty of the baseball season is the marathon, the grind, the knowledge that every night this soap opera will reveal a new episode. That was missing in the slapdash 2020 season, which began four months too late and ended after just 60 games, far too soon.
This time, it appears it’s here for the long haul. The hope is that the crowds will slowly be allowed to increase, and the intimacy will safely grow.
That was something to smile about on opening day. And then the Mariners gave their fans much more — with some grimaces thrown in. But even those had been missed.