Baseball's Opening Day: Jitters, Tributes And A Fresh, New Season

Monday, April 2nd 2007, 9:42 pm
By: News On 6

(AP) - Pre-game jitters, emotional tributes and packed stadiums.

Baseball was back from coast-to-coast Monday, with Ben Sheets, Alex Rodriguez, and Adam Dunn giving enthusiastic home fans reasons to be optimistic about the new season. "Opening day," said Sheets, Milwaukee's ace right-hander. "I've got a sumo wrestler wrestling in my belly. I was nervous." He wasn't alone. On his first defensive play of the new season Monday, New York Yankees 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez misplayed a popup in the 1st inning of a 9-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"It's good to get the opening-day jitters out of the way," said Rodriguez, who made up for his defensive gaffe with a long 2-run homer. "I started out like a moron there."

The nerves were understandable, especially with everything going on at sold-out Yankee Stadium. The Yankees honoured Cory Lidle by wearing black armbands, welcomed back announcer and former outfielder Bobby Murcer, who's fighting brain cancer, and held a moment of silence for former star Hank Bauer and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, both of whom died recently.

"Everybody had a lump in their throat before the game," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "You couldn't help but choke up."

Jason Giambi, who hit a go-ahead single in the 7th for his third RBI, was a big part of the poignant pre-game ceremonies. After a touching video tribute to Lidle, Giambi escorted the pitcher's wife, Melanie, and six-year-old son, Christopher, toward the mound before they threw out first pitches.

Lidle and Giambi were old friends and high school teammates. Lidle was killed in a plane crash Oct. 11 in New York after finishing last season with the Yankees. His locker at Yankee Stadium will remain unoccupied all season.

"That was probably one of the single hardest things I've had to do in my life," Giambi said.

In Philadelphia, a sellout crowd of 44,742 turned out for the fourth season opener at Citizens Bank Park and couldn't help but get teary-eyed during a tribute for longtime coach and former player John Vukovich; former all-star outfielder Johnny Callison; former pitching coach Vern Ruhle; Lidle, a former Phillies pitcher; and longtime organist Paul Richardson.

"VUK" was painted inside the 3rd-base coaching box to honour Vukovich, who passed away last month. Vukovich's son, Vince, threw out the first pitch before the Phillies lost to Atlanta 5-3 in 10 innings.

In Houston, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, and country music star Clay Walker were part of a Minute Maid Park-record crowd of 43,803 that saw Brad Lidge blow another save and the Astros lose to Pittsburgh 4-2 in 10 innings.

In Detroit, the Tigers raised the 2006 AL pennant up a centre-field flag pole between the franchise's four championship banners. Fireworks were set off to commemorate the moment for Detroit fans, who hadn't seen a Tigers team make the World Series since 1984.

"I definitely wanted to see the city get a chance to take the celebration of opening day and extend it throughout the day," Tigers centre-fielder Curtis Granderson said.

He couldn't make it happen, as Toronto beat Detroit 5-3 in 10 innings and spoiled the festivities.

"I'm sure the crowd is disappointed. I'm disappointed, too," manager Jim Leyland said. "We wanted to get a win for them, but we've got 161 games to go. I'm always glad to get opening day behind us."

Fredi Gonzalez won in his first game as Florida's manager, beating Washington and Manny Acta 9-2 in a matchup of rookie skippers. Gonzalez (Cuba) and Acta (Dominican Republic) were the first pair of managers born outside the United States to make their major league debuts in the same game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Sheets was nearly untouchable, giving up an early home run to Jeff Kent before retiring the next 22 batters in a 2-hitter - a 7-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He pitched the first opening-day complete game of 2-hits or fewer in 15 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The last to do it was Tom Glavine with a 2-hitter for Atlanta against Houston in 1992.

Sheets has made only 39 starts in the past two seasons for the Brewers because of injuries.

"I'm happy finally, hopefully, that now I don't have to continue answering questions about Ben Sheets' health," Brewers manager Ned Yost said.

Felix Hernandez, at 20, the majors' youngest opening day pitcher since 20-year-old Dwight Gooden in 1985, allowed 3-hits and struck out a career-high 12 in 8 innings as Seattle topped Oakland 4-0.

Only two pitchers in the last 14 years have struck out more to begin a season. Pedro Martinez had 12 to start the Mets' 2005, and Randy Johnson started Seattle's 1993 and '96 seasons with 14.

"Felix was about as electric as I've ever seen anybody," said J.J. Putz, who followed Hernandez with a scoreless 9th inning.

It was a glum opening day for the Chicago Cubs, who were surprised by news hours before their opener that Tribune Co. plans to sell the team at the end of the season. New manager Lou Piniella held a team meeting and told his players not to let it distract them.

Instead, Dunn homered twice to help Cincinnati power past the Cubs with a 5-1 victory.

"We are going to get off to a fast start," an optimistic Piniella said.

The baseball season actually got started Sunday night, when St. Louis hoisted the World Series flag and then lost 6-1 to the New York Mets - the team it beat in the NL championship series before blowing out Detroit for the title.

With 26 other teams starting Monday, that left San Francisco and San Diego as the only squads yet to start their seasons. They'll play Tuesday, when Barry Bonds resumes his chase for Hank Aaron's home run record.