Thursday marked a momentous occasion for me: for the first time in more than 30 years of baseball fandom, I attended an opening day ballgame. While I'm always elated by the annual arrival of the regular season, I've never felt a particular pull to pay the premium charge and deal with the hassle of securing an opening day ticket. This year, however, I had a route around that hassle. Thanks to my new BBWAA card, I was guaranteed access to the press box of my choosing, and naturally, I chose Yankee Stadium.
I had done the press boxes of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field last year on day credentials, so I wasn't entirely out of my element, but I will admit that flashing Badge #643 for the first time and not having to sweat whether my name was on the right list felt pretty damn cool. Alas, the 42-degree weather felt even cooler, which took some of the shine off the occasion. The press box is open air, and whatever heating system there was to be had was delivering at a Ramiro Peña-esque capacity where I was sitting. I spent the entire nine innings wearing a parka and a wool hat, gear which makes typing while watching a ballgame a very odd and surreal experience. I felt some pride in that some of the bigger-name pros spent the game typing in the well-heated dining room and watching via the TV feed — pride mixed with an envy of their survival instincts.
I also realized that sitting on my hands for warmth was a great way to avoid any accidental outbursts which would go against the famous dictum memorialized by the great Jerome Holtzman: No cheering in the press box. Not that I haven't been able to separate the objective, professional side of this life from that as a fan. When you watch a game in the press box with the obligation of delivering coverage, you quickly learn to root for stories that will make your writeup more interesting, regardless of the outcome. When I have to channel the elations and frustrations felt by my inner fan, I text a friend or curse a blue streak on Twitter.
In any event, opening day at the stadium wasn't all that different an experience from covering games in the past, except that the press box was more crowded. With no championship flag to raise, the sense of celebration was more muted than the impression one got from watching last year's festivities, though I'll wager that the weather had a fair bit to do with that. Still, there was plenty for Yankee fans to cheer, from Mike Mussina's ceremonial first pitch to the return of the familiar cast members to the welcoming of Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin, the latter of whom didn't understand the Bleacher Creatures' customary roll call but nonetheless had a big day at the plate and on the bases. I wrote up the experience for Baseball Prospectus, focusing primarily on the words and actions of Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, the two biggest heroes in the Yankees' 6-3 win. Here's the part about the first baseman:
"I've been petitioning the league to start in March for years," laughed Mark Teixeira, a career .235/.342/.411 hitter in April, but .294/.382/.557 the rest of the year. "Finally they let us start in March because everyone knows about my Aprils."
Teixeira had plenty of cause for joviality. Not only did he launch a towering three-run homer off Justin Verlander in the third inning of Thursday's Opening Day tilt between the Yankees and Tigers, but he put some distance between last year's horrendously slow start and this season. Teixeira didn't collect his first hit of 2010 until the season's fifth game and his 22nd plate appearance, didn't connect for his first homer until the 12th game, and ended April hitting an abysmal .136/.300/.259 with just two homers.
While Teixeira finished the year with 33 homers, 108 RBI, and a league-high 113 runs scored, he hit just .256/.365/.481, setting a career low in batting average and his lowest marks in the other two categories since his 2003 rookie campaign. Those numbers could pass muster for most first basemen; indeed, Teixeira's .294 True Average ranked 12th among the 22 first sackers who qualified for the batting title. When you're coming down from a league-high 39 dingers, a .292/.383/.565 line, and a world championship in your first year in pinstripes, that's not enough, particularly when you're earning $22.5 million per year.
"Last year was awful," said Teixeira of his slow start. "There's no other way to put it. It was embarrassing when you have that bad of a start. And last year overall for me wasn't good. I expect a lot out of myself. Personally and as a team we didn't accomplish our goals, so this offseason [Yankees hitting coach] Kevin Long and I talked a lot and just said, 'Okay, what are we going to do?'"
Teixeira realized that he was neglecting an essential part of the equation in his spring preparations. "I swung a lot more," he said when asked what he'd done to prepare differently. "Being a switch-hitter, I have to swing about twice as much anyway. So with all the work that we put in defensively and in the weight room and running sprints in spring training, sometimes your swing is the last thing you think about because you just figure, 'I've always been able to hit, I'll be ready.' This spring I really made sure that my swing was right. Kevin Long and I spent a lot of time in the cage, and hopefully it's going to pay off."
Those quotes came from the postgame press conference, the last via a question asked by yours truly, which was a minor milestone; I was something of a wallflower on the half-dozen occasions I was credentialed last year, so taking the mic in my hand in front of a room full of pros was a rite of passage. The chance to help shape the conversation, to ask the questions that are burning in my mind — why are you running your bullpen thataway, why did this guy bunt, have you given thought to trying it this way, whatever — and to use those answers to supplement the angles which most interest me is something I've worked towards for over 10 years. It's workaday stuff to the beat guys we all read, and while the novelty may eventually wear off for me, the chance to do what I'm doing from the inside is not an opportunity I'll ever take for granted.