NEW YORK, PHILADELPHIA, HOUSTON -- For three days, we searched for the heart of Opening Day, from Yankee Stadium on Sunday to Citizens Bank Park on Monday to Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. Three Opening Days in 48 hours. Three ceremonial first pitches, three moments of silence for the pope, three fighter jet flybys. Unquantifiable pomp, immeasurable circumstance. But the heart of Opening Day remained an elusive target.
That is, until the moment 31-year-old Bill Pulsipher (Fairfax High) strolled into the visitors' clubhouse in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, located his locker and began putting on his St. Louis Cardinals' uniform. There it was, the heart of Opening Day, beating loudly in his chest.
Fans in the upper reaches of Yankee Stadium cheer the starting lineups before the start of the season-opening game between New York and Boston on Sunday night.
(Julie Jacobson - AP)
"This," Pulsipher said, looking around him, "is a very special day in my life."
Opening Day is baseball's annual ritual of rebirth, when the dark winter once again gives way to the promise of summer. Fifteen baseball cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Houston, experienced theirs over the last three days. Washington will celebrate its first one in 34 years on April 14, a gala event that promises to blow away the others.
For Pulsipher, however, the dark winter lasted nearly four years. Once one of the game's brightest young pitching prospects, he last pitched in the big leagues in 2001. Since then, he has battled anxiety, retired, unretired and kicked around the bushes, from the independent leagues to Puerto Rico. At one point, he took a job as a groundskeeper at the New York Mets' spring training facility, tending to the same mounds he once stalked as the Mets' presumed future ace.
Having made it back to the majors with the Cardinals this spring, Pulsipher could appreciate like perhaps no one else the symbolism of Opening Day.
"Making it back after being gone as long as I have, this is a day I've looked forward to for quite a while," he said. "I appreciate it this time a lot more than I did when I was a 21-year-old so-called phenom. A lot more."
If Opening Day symbolizes rebirth, the notion of attending three Opening Days on successive days -- New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies vs. Washington Nationals, Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals -- is like giving rebirth to triplets, across 48 hours of labor. It's not for the faint of heart. But it is rewarding its own way.
Three Opening Days means a study in Americana -- three stadiums decorated with red, white and blue bunting, three giant American flags unfurled on the field. It means plenty of fireworks and balloons and marching bands.
It means indelible images, such as the sight of the Nationals lining up along the third-base line for pregame introductions, the first team in more than three decades to represent the nation's capital in a real game. There was legendary pitcher and hometown hero Roger Clemens, in perhaps his final Opening Day, doffing his cap to the Houston fans who gave him a standing ovation during introductions.
But perhaps nothing topped the sight of new Yankees ace Randy Johnson standing a few feet behind Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra when the latter tossed out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday night at Yankee Stadium -- Johnson, in pinstripes, appearing even taller than his actual 6 feet 10, and Berra perhaps a few inches below his playing height of 5-8. A giraffe standing beside an armadillo.
Del Unser was tabbed to throw out the first pitch in Philadelphia, a gracious nod to the visitors from Washington, since Unser not only was a member of the Phillies' 1980 World Series champions, but also played in the Washington Senators' final game in 1971 before the franchise moved away. Meantime, Houston went the patriotic route, inviting a group of Purple Heart recipients from various eras to toss out simultaneous first pitches.
One suspects they will all pale on April 14, when President Bush rears back and continues the long (but lately dormant) tradition of presidential first pitches in Washington.
(Incidentally, Dubya's momma, former first lady Barbara Bush, was seated behind home plate at Minute Maid Park for the Astros' opener on Tuesday. Perhaps she was doing some advance scouting work on behalf of the Nationals.) It was 43 and drizzly for Opening Night in New York, 59 and sunny in Philadelphia, 77 and muggy in Houston. But in every city, the atmospheric pressure inside the respective clubhouses before game time was off the charts.
"Today, it's for real," Nationals reliever Joey Eischen said about two hours before game time Monday. "No more spring training. It's totally different. I'm ready. The countdown has started, and I'm just waiting to launch."
The heart of Opening Day, one ultimately discovers, beats in the chest of every big league player, and in every fan. And maybe it beats triply strong in anyone crazy enough to spend three days and travel halfway across the country looking for it.