The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Opening Day

Yesterday was the Florida Marlins Opening Day. I'll spare you most of the details on what actually happened during the game since I'm sure if you made it here on the web, you already know what happened or at least how to go to ESPN or somewhere and find a boxscore or account of the game. Although I’ve been to numerous baseball games over the years, this was only the second opening day game that I attended and the first since 1984.

My memories of that 1984 game are surprisingly vivid (I was 6 at the time). It’s the first baseball game I remember attending in person (it was cold, my dad took me out of school and had told me I was going to the “eye doctor” so that I wouldn’t tell anyone at school where I was really going). Like with the Marlins this year, expectations for the White Sox were high in 1984 as they were returning most of the lineup that won the 1983 Western Division by more than 20 games. In addition to seeing the White Sox lose that day, I distinctly remember my dad and I talking about how impressive the Tigers looked that day (they went on to win the World Series after leading the Division wire-to-wire).

We also still talk about the candy in the vending machines at Comiskey Park that day (when’s the last time anyone saw a vending machine at a baseball stadium? And these were the old time, cigarette style vending machines with the pull handles). The candy was so stale we were sure that the same Clark bars were being sold during the 1983 playoffs six months before (although subjecting the candy to Chicago’s cold winter seemed to be a cruel and unnecessary fate).

At yesterday’s Marlins game I didn’t encounter any stale food, but I did see lots of orange. I thought that was odd as orange isn’t typically a Marlins color. Actually, I didn’t think it was part of their color scheme at all. But the opening day program, schedule magnets, and other paraphernalia are all dominated by orange this year. Maybe some marketing genius thinks we’ll all buy orange things. Or maybe the Marlins think they can latch on to the Hurricanes and Dolphins success with orange in Miami.

Whatever the case, I was just happy that there was an opening day program this year. The Marlins are of course the team that did not have programs printed for the NLDS against the Giants last season. The team was willing to sell you a regular season program with an inaccurate roster for the Marlins and no information on the Giants however (the opening day program by the way contained good information on the Marlins, but no information on the Expos, although the scorecard did contain logos for the Marlins first few home opponents).

While there wasn’t much special or different about entering the stadium or the stadium itself this year, there was a lot going on before the game that made the experience unique and likely not something I’ll experience again for a long time. Army troops delivered flags and the World Championship banner to the field via parachute drops from high above the stadium. Different “famous” recording artists who I could not even pretend to have heard of before sang the Canadian and US National anthems. The Marlins also unveiled the 1997/2003 World Series Champions banner on the outfield fence.

There were also a slew of on-field award presentations before the first pitch. Most of the awards you’ve heard about – Dontrelle Willis received his National League Rookie of the Year Award, Josh Beckett the World Series MVP trophy. Some lower profile but no less distinguished awards were also presented such as Mike Lowell’s Silver Slugger Award and Jack McKeon’s Manager of the Year trophy. Team President David Samson was also able to get his little face into the limelight by allowing the team’s 2003 Organization of the Year Award (awarded by Baseball America) to be presented to him. In situations like these Samson often seems to be a petty and glory-hogging person. Given his role with the team it would have seemed more appropriate for him to hand the award to someone else – say General Manager Larry Beinfest than for him to accept the award himself. But Davey never likes to pass up an opportunity to have his picture in the paper or on television.

Overall, it was impossible for anyone who was at the game to miss the fact that the Marlins won last year’s World Series. Even if you arrived late you were able to see the World Series Championship flag raised in centerfield in the middle of the third inning. The ceremonies and presentations were numerous and drawn out, but well planned and enjoyed.

I found the player introductions to be very interesting. First the clubhouse people and coaches were introduced to polite applause. Then the bench players (including the non-starting pitcher) were introduced numerically. Many of the lesser known players and new players received about as much polite applause as the clubhouse manager. Other players who didn’t start, such as Dontrelle Willis and A.J. Burnett, received thunderous ovations. So did most of the starters. While this is to be expected for the most part, I clearly felt that most of the other players – such as Willie Harris and Wil Cordero didn’t receive much or any applause from the crowd simply because the crowd didn’t know who they were. Yesterday’s crowd was a crowd looking for excitement – not a crowd looking to see a great baseball game.

Luckily, we got both – excitement and a great baseball game. After three innings I started to think to myself that we could be seeing something special as Josh Beckett started out extremely hot for the Marlins. He was perfect in fact. Nine up, nine down – no hits, no walks, no nothing. Unfortunately it was not to last as Beckett gave up a few hits, but it was still a dominating performance. Armando Benitez’s first regular season appearance also added to the drama and the excitement of the game as he provided the Expos with the opportunity to rally late in the game. Although I’ve been a fan of Jose Vidro for a long time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hit a ball as hard and as well as his home run in the top of the ninth.

Hopefully Benitez will not be as “exciting” in future outings, although my hopes are not high. There was an interesting debate on the Marlins flagship radio station after the game yesterday about whether the team should provide McKeon with more Tums or rosaries for when he has to go to his bullpen this year. The bullpen is looks like a potentially major weakness for the Fish this year. You could almost feel the disappointment in the air when Chad Fox entered in relief of Beckett and struggled and the “who’s that?” heard around the stadium when Matt Perisho entered was not encouraging either. Then Benitez…

The biggest excitement of the day for me and my friends came when Hee Seop Choi homered in his first Marlins at bat. This was exciting for us because the ball came straight at us. I am convinced – and I’m sure you’ll agree if you see the highlight on SportsCenter – that I would have caught the ball had I not been hit in the back by the fool behind me right as the ball approached us. Appropriately the ball hit the jerk who hit me in the hat (which he was using to try to catch the ball), fell to the ground and was scooped up by his wife (after she and I both reached for it). If you saw her on local Miami TV – everyone interviewed her apparently – you now know what the woman who stole my fifteen minutes of fame looks like. Hopefully those people will be amongst the thousands that will never return to a Marlins game again this season. The guy who hit me proceeded to call everyone in his phone book to tell them that his wife caught Choi’s home run (leaving out the part about him dropping it). I believe he even called my own mother.

Overall Marlins Opening Day 2004 was an exciting experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope that the other 55,314 fans who attended enjoyed enough to decide to return to many more Marlins games this year. It feels like Marlins attendance this year will be as much of a discussion topic as their record and place in the standings. Tonight’s game (which I will not be attending) will be an interesting test. First night game of the year, beautiful weather and no local television coverage. But it’s against the Expos on a Wednesday night. My guess is 12,000 fans. I expect good crowds (30,000 plus) on Friday and Saturday night against the Phillies though. Time will tell.

I’m just glad I was able to enjoy the opening day of a defending World Series Champion. That’s probably not something I’ll be able to do again for a long time.


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