DETROIT - Opening day is special, even if the ace can't hold a 3-0 lead, even if you get 11 innings, even if it's overcast and damp and breezy, even if the home team loses.
That's what happened yesterday at Comerica Park. Kansas City outlasted the Tigers 5-4. OK, so the best they can do now is 161-1. Mike Ilitch must be furious after spending all that money.
Just kidding. You can be light-hearted on opening day. Baseball is back. Birds will chirp again. Buds will soon bloom. It's unlike any other day at the ballpark.
It's special if you're 63-year-old Jim Leyland and you're managing your 2,525th major league game, or if you're Trey Hillman and you're managing in your first.
It is special if you are Miguel Cabrera, the biggest offensive acquisition of the off-season, and you pull on the storied Olde English D for the first time and crush your first home run in your new home. And it is special if you are Brandon Inge, and your career seems in limbo, and you have donned that uniform more often than anybody on the team, in 880 games over all or parts of eight seasons, and you're suddenly an outfielder and you throw a runner out at the plate.
It is special if you're Gary Sheffield and you can say, alone among every player in the game today, that you're in an opening-day lineup for the 20th consecutive year. And it is special if you're rookie Clete Thomas and you made the big club on the last day of spring training and when you ran from the clubhouse to the pay phone to call your wife she screamed "No way!" four times into your ear. And there you are, left field, opening day, squeezing the
final out on line drives in the ninth and 10th innings, and then you get a leadoff double in the 11th on your first career at-bat.
It is special if you're Justin Verlander and you're at the top of a starting rotation that could prove to be baseball's best and you just blow guys away for five innings. And it is special if you're Alex Gordon and you just might be a budding star and when Verlander finally makes a mistake you crush it, sending a majestic shot deep into the bleachers in right to give your Royals life.
Opening day means a new year with new expectations. And, new problems too.
The Tigers, despite one of the best batting orders money can buy and despite that starting five on the mound, have one. A problem, that is. It is the bullpen with Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney on the disabled list.
Verlander started the seventh and allowed the two men he faced to reach base. Three relievers followed and let them both cross the plate. In the 11th, Denny Bautista gave up three hits and, although Inge tried to bail him out with his throw to the plate, a bloop single with two outs by Tony Pena Jr. gave Kansas City its go-ahead run.
"Everybody wants to make a case about the bullpen," Leyland said afterward. "It'll be a topic if we don't win games. It won't be if we do. We had guys come in in tough situations and get a couple balls up. It happens. Everybody will want to make a big deal out of it. The big deal was we left 10 guys on base and had one of the best hitters in baseball up with a runner on third and one out. I'll take that situation every time."
Edgar Renteria, the new shortstop, was the hitter. Thomas was the runner. A defensive replacement in the ninth, the rookie hit an opposite-field double to the base of the wall in left-center on a two-strike pitch to open the bottom of the 11th and moved to third on a sacrifice by Inge. Renteria struck out and then Gordon dived to stop a shot by Placido Polanco and threw him out to end the game.
It capped a special day both for Gordon, who won, and Thomas, who did not.
It was opening day, a special day for everybody. One down, 161 to go. Surely, they'll win the rest of 'em.