Opening Day may be my favorite date on the calendar.
"The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again," wrote the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. Of course, he also lamented that "as soon as the chill rains come, [the game] stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
But I'm not going there yet. Today, I'm happy. Big League baseball returns to Safeco. First pitch, 7 pm.
The Mariners (with a 3-4 record after a week) welcome, and I mean truly welcome, the perennial cellar-dwelling Houston Astros. The rebuilding Astros have switched this season from the National League to the American League. Misery needs company.
It’s an all-Texas week at the Safe with the Rangers arriving on Thursday.
The Mariners are coming off their third straight last-place finish in the AL West; they ranked 27th out of 30 major league teams in runs last season. But the Mariners have made significant changes — in personnel and infrastructure — during the off-season that have baseball insiders whispering.
First, there was the addition of bashers Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez made the Mariners a more feared line-up than usual in this spring’s Cactus League pre-season, where the Ms finished with one of the best records in baseball.
The new and returning bashers join first baseman Justin Smoak, who himself was part of a big trade in 2010 that was intended to add power. A college sensation, Smoak has struggled at times in his young career but he performed solidly this spring, finishing among the leaders in batting.
I spoke by phone with Smoak late one afternoon as the Mariners were preparing to break camp and head north for the season. I wanted to check-in with a returning player to ask what changes we fans can expect to see this evening and over the course of the 2013 campaign. Smoak was about to leave the M's Peoria, AZ complex after going 1-2 at the plate in a Cactus League contest against Kansas City.
“There is a whole different make-up to this team," he told me. "Last year was a bunch of young guys, myself included, trying to get our feet wet. We didn’t have a veteran presence to help us take a step forward.” That last remark was perhaps a veiled indictment of Ichiro's failure to step up as a team leader.
Ibanez’s name comes up often as a veteran player and leader who is making his third return to Seattle — this time after making a name for himself as the homerun-hitting, late-inning savior for the Yankees down the stretch last fall. Michael Morse is another returning veteran and potential leader. Morse has been swinging a hot bat. He was tied on Sunday for the Major League lead in homeruns with five. Morse's breakout season was 2011 when he batted .303 with 31 homeruns for the Washington Nationals. The Mariners traded the highly-touted Morse to the Nationals in 2009, and like so many other ex-Mariners he emerged as a star in D.C.
The other big change for the Ms this season is the infrastructure change: shorter fences. A-Rod argued for bringing in Safeco’s epic fences back in 2000. The Mariners finally took heed and at long last reduced the distance from home plate to the power alley in left-center field.
“It will make a difference,” Smoak told me. “There will be more homers. For us hitters there is certainly more confidence. There are games where you’re trying to scratch one run over. Now, rather than an 0-4 night where your hits reach the warning track, you might be 1-3 with a homerun. Maybe there’s a couple of runners on base and you win the game. It’s a game-changer.”
Smoak sounds more mature now than when I first met him as a college player in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he finished the 2006 season as the league's MVP. Back then it was nothing to see Smoak standing at first with today’s MLB all-stars — Buster Posey, Gordon Beckham and other big names. Smoak has not yet lived up to expectations, but there is hope as surely as there is spring.
The Mariners have another Cape Leaguer this year in rookie broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith, who Seattle Weekly called “the new, young, and unproven voice of the Seattle Mariners.” As the Hall of Fame voice of Dave Niehaus slowly fades like shadows over the infield, the rich and knowledgeable voice of Goldsmith marks a new era at the microphone.
"It's been a complete thrill," Goldsmith told MLB.com after his first week on the job. "It's funny because when we went to Oakland, everybody was telling me the ballparks get better after this. But that was the best ballpark I'd ever been to, especially on Opening Night. So it's hard to believe it's happening, and we're here and we're doing it."
One week into the new season, the broadcast team already has had some exciting moments.
In the 9th inning of game two against Oakland last week, Morse blasted a shot over the centerfield wall that was so high and hard it defied measurement. His drive was followed by Franklin Gutierrez’s shot off the outfield wall. The back-to-back power helped the Ms start the season 2-0.
On Friday night the Mariner’s managed to beat the Chicago White Sox, a team that has dominated them for years. They prevailed in the 10th with a gritty performance by closer Tom Wilhelmsen to clinch the road win.
These moments don't compare with the nearly 20-year-old immortal call of Dave Niehaus in 1995 — “... lined down the left field line for a base hit! Here somes Joey, here comes Junior to third base, they’re going to wave him in ..." — but it's already sounding better than the demoralizing losses of the past few seasons.
And so the Astros arrive in Seattle for the first time since June 2004. I’ll be there for Opening Day, with a twinge of support for Houston. My first Major League game was in the fall of 1972 at the Astrodome. The bright orange uniforms, fake green grass and space age scoreboard were thrilling. A 4th grader then, I would eventually become an Astro Buddy, the fan club for kids.
The Astros bring with them left-handed pitching veteran Erik Bedard, who the Mariners once acquired in a supposedly blockbuster trade for Adam Jones (now an all-star in Baltimore). Bedard never again performed as well as he had prior to joining the Mariners and has bounced around the league.
I hope to see the Astros' first baseman, Brett Wallace. Like Smoak, I watched Wallace play in the Cape League and during his college days at Arizona State. I saw him collect 3 RBIs on a spring afternoon against the Huskies here in Seattle. I remember walking out to the bus with Wallace and his dad that April day. He was ebullient. It was spring and he was playing baseball.
The Mariners have spring fever too. “There is a bunch of excitement,” Smoak told me. “As players we want to get the season started. We want to play games that mean something. Every Opening Day is a favorite, especially in the big leagues. Not everyone has this opportunity. I can’t take it for granted. I put the work in and I am going to enjoy it." Me too.