No event on the sporting calendar resounds with more pomp and bombast while having less ultimate meaning than Opening Day in Baseball.
Our resident tabloid, the Herald, expressed the point with wonderful sarcasm some years ago. When the Red Sox blew their opener, with newly imported and expensive reliever Lee Smith botching his first save, the newspaper the next morning placed the moment in elegant perspective. In a headline black and bold enough to announce the beginning of a war or even the end of one, the paper declared “Wait until Next Year!”
It was smartly derisive, a perfect rebuke to the alleged importance of a single game given that when it’s over there are still 161 more to play. Still as a harbinger of spring, opening day sure beats the groundhog.
As in all aspects of their interminable relationship, the Red Sox and Yankees are glutted with opening day battle stars. When Fenway Park was inaugurated the 12th of April in 1912 the New York team, then known as the Highlanders, graciously bowed, 7-6 in 11 innings, launching what would be – pound for pound – as fine a season as the Red Sox have ever known. Precisely 11 years later they returned the favor as the Yankees opened their grand new stadium by whipping the Sox on a homer inevitably smote by the Mighty Babe.
They’ve had dozens of reprisals with the most raucous probably being the 1950 opener. With Mel Parnell pitching at Fenway, the Red Sox led 9-0 only to allow the Yanks to whittle away at the lead, then explode for nine in the eighth to win 15-10. Ah, the ignominy of it! It was an omen of things to come that year with the Bombers rolling to another pennant while the Bosox were falling four games short. It was familiar stuff for those times.
This year’s entry – a snappy 8-2 Red Sox triumph on a dandy day at the Stadium – gave the nitpickers little to carp about. Boston’s starting pitching was adequate, the relief pitching was brilliant, the situation-hitting was admirable, the defense flawless, while the manager looked like Hornblower himself; stern, noble, and unflappable. Was it enough to rouse the Nation to impossible dreams? But of course, old sport.
This one caution might be offered, though. Go easy in the rush to canonize the rookie picket, Jackie Bradley. In his debut, the young man walked three times, displaying composure, and made a nice twisting catch. However modest, this was enough to inspire the three cheerleaders broadcasting the game for ESPN to come very close to proposing they clear some space for him on Mount Rushmore. Such irrational exuberance can spread fast. Don’t do this to the kid; it can only make it tougher for him.
Moreover, may I further suggest that not holding Bradley back in the minors a few more weeks, thus extending control over him another whole year, will ultimately prove to have been quite dumb.
But all of that’s for another day. On this day, at least, they looked good. On the other hand, on this day, at least, the Yankees looked perfectly dreadful; more so even than had been so widely advertised all spring. After 161 more games, we may have a better idea.
It’s hard to know who sustained the more grievous loss of prestige when the impertinent if fading super-star, Jarome Iginla, stiffed the Bruins, choosing to be a Penguin instead.
For Boston’s resident hockey warriors, whose slide from eminence was gaining speed well before this latest insult, getting spurned by Iginla may have nailed the lid on this season’s pretensions, presuming they don’t pull off an even more impressive coup by the looming trade deadline. Because without major reinforcements, which, by the way, Iginla was hardly certain to offer, the Bruins won’t go far this post-season.
They’ll get over it, but can Boston? Being rebuffed in favor of Pittsburgh shakes the alleged Athens of America to its Brahmin roots. It’s a rebuke to the very culture, tearing away at our exalted sense of ourselves.
It’s possible to forgive Iginla on the grounds that he has spent the last 16 years ice-bound in Calgary and might not know the difference. Still the precedent being set is ominous. What’s next! The Pittsburgh Symphony out-ranking the BSO? Pitt’s medical school topping Hahvid’s? It’s deplorable. What would the late George Apley have said? So much for the myth they all secretly yearn to worship at the altar of Shore & Orr.
The best take on the issue, however, comes from grizzled New York Post hockey scribe Larry Brooks, highly esteemed in the dodge. Brooks detects much delicious irony in Mr. Iginla sticking it to the Bruins while also denying his old team, those flickering Flames, the much better return they would have received from the Bruins compared with what they reluctantly had to accept from the Pens when the player put his foot down.
Brooks further notes that owners Jacobs of the Bruins and Edwards of the Flames were easily the most merciless, unforgiving, even avenging, hard-liners in the recent, lamentable labor dispute in which, interestingly, Iginla, as the Flames’ long-time captain, was an activist on the players’ side, while the Penguins ownership group, featuring the illustrious Mario Lemieux ,was highly conciliatory in the negotiations.
In the end, it was a case of a player simply asserting his rights that killed this deal. How painful that must have been to our Mr. Jacobs, who ostensibly has little regard for players’ rights. Was Iginla seeking to get even with Jacobs? Can we stretch this point still further and wonder if Jeremy Jacobs is effectively to blame for the deal so vital to his own team’s interests getting botched?
Not surprisingly some hideous signings at outrageous numbers marked the end of baseball’s pre-season. Baseball owners tend to panic as the start of the season looms, fearing it will end negotiations with stars headed for free agency. Accordingly, it’s a time when dumb deals flourish.
In this year’s version, the Tigers buckled and gave ace hurler Justin Verlander $180 million for eight years while the Giants were lavishing $167 million for nine years on superb catcher Buster Posey. Those were just the biggest capers.
Is Verlander worth $23 million a year this year? Maybe! But will he still be when he’s 39? You don’t need a soothsayer to advise that you should beware of long-term contracts for pitchers as keenly as you do the Ides of March.
The day the Tigers succumbed to Verlander the Mets were bidding farewell to perpetually sore-armed Johan Santana while pondering the folly of having paid him a record $138 million for 46 wins, which factors out to $3 million a pop. For further proof that investing long-term in pitchers is unwise we have Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, now both fizzling in Philly.
As the game’s best young catcher Posey, whom the Giants have signed to 2022, is a better risk but only if he remains healthy enough to catch. In a comparable situation, the Twins, another small market franchise that can ill-afford mistakes, rolled the dice on Joe Mauer, much to its regret two years later. On and on it goes.
But the ‘Ridiculously Dumb Contract of the Week’ award goes not to MLB but to the NFL where the Dallas Cowboys – no strangers to egregious excess – have chained themselves to flamboyant but mistake-prone Tony Romo for the next six years. As his reward for having led the Boys to exactly one playoff win over the generation he has quarterbacked them, the rakish Romo will drag down $18 million a year. Boggles the mind to consider what he might command if he’d ever won anything.
And it also rather makes Tom Brady look like some bargain, eh. What a great country!