We come to see how the new ones look. Is he taller than you thought? How defined are his arms? Is he chunkier than he seems on TV? Does that face look funny beneath a Tigers cap?
More and more in baseball, the annual rite of Opening Day feels like New Car Day at the dealership. Your eyes go right for the freshest model. Someone famous. Someone shiny new. Someone playing in another city last year who has decided – at least for now – to wear your colors, to make your town his town. Roy Halladay pitches for Philadelphia. Cliff Lee wears a Seattle uniform. Johnny Damon prowls the outfield in Detroit.
I remember really sensing this trend a decade ago, when Comerica Park opened. In hopes of a splashy start, the Tigers traded several players for former MVP Juan Gonzalez from the Rangers.
On Opening Day, Gonzalez emerged from the dugout. You could feel the crowd blinking. His size. His powerful swing. He was a specimen, for sure, but it took a while to get used to him in that uniform, standing next to Detroit stalwarts like Bobby Higginson.
It was almost as if the crowd whispered, “Is he really ours?”
A year later, he wasn’t. From Pudge to Maggs to Sheff
The trend continued in 2004, with the arrival of Pudge Rodriguez, a very famous face who had just led the Florida Marlins to a World Series title. Now, here he was, Opening Day, in a Tigers uniform. We craned our necks to get a look.
After that, it became a frequent tradition. In 2005, it was the new famous slugger from Chicago, Magglio OrdoÃ±ez. In 2007, Gary Sheffield, who everyone remembered as a Yankee or a Dodger. In 2008, there were several bright and shiny models – the celebrated Florida slugger Miguel Cabrera was now a Tiger, and so was the colorful Dontrelle Willis, who’d captured the nation’s attention as a young Marlins pitcher with a sky-high leg kick.
And today it will be Damon, one of the most recognizable faces in baseball. He first gained fame as a shaggy, bearded, self-proclaimed “idiot” with the Red Sox team that finally broke the curse. More recently, he was a fixture on the Yankees, clean-shaven and closely cropped.
Now, he’s wearing our colors. Our ballpark. He speaks as if this was meant to be, as if he were a relative that always had our family on his go-to-visit list.
“Obviously, New York and Boston were great baseball towns,” Damon told me last week, “but when I had my consultation with Jim Leyland, he said Detroit was one of the best places to play and I’m glad I’m coming to a great manager and a great young team.”
He will be cheered today, hailed, welcomed, mobbed for autographs. But mostly, he will be looked at.
Is he really ours? Those championship Tigers
It’s strange to imagine Mickey Mantle in a different uniform every few years, or Cal Ripken Jr. as a Mariner or Indian or Astro. Of course, in some places, this is as normal as April showers. Imagine being a Yankees fan every Opening Day. One year you arrive to see Mark Teixeira, who used to whack your pitchers as a Texas Ranger, now batting on your side. And you arrive to see CC Sabathia, who used to shut you down in Cleveland, now wearing pinstripes. This year, you spot Curtis Granderson, who used to battle you in Detroit, sporting in a Yankees cap.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with this, I guess. But it’s different from when Opening Day was mostly a starter’s pistol. The Tigers, for example, for five years – from the championship team of 1968 through the division-winning team of 1972 – kept five of the same eight fielders in their Opening Day lineups: Dick McAuliffe, Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup.
From 2005-09, they kept two.
So today, there’s Johnny Damon, and we’ll watch him and we’ll cheer him and in time, we’ll get used to him. But Opening Day is likely to feel more like Halloween as the years pass, players knocking on the door in unfamiliar costumes. Throw your Cracker Jack in their bags and see what tricks and what treats.