Five in a row, 36 to go

For five years now, I’ve been giddy with anticipation for the first or second week of April. For me, the start of the baseball season does not just mean the return of my favorite sport. It also signifies warmer weather, outdoor activities, weekends at the beach, barbeques in the backyard. There are four seasons on the calendar, but New Jersey is one of the lucky states that gets four changes in the weather to correspond with those solstices and equinoxes. In some ways, the baseball season is the national OK that tells us we’re allowed to go outside and play again.

What’s really excited me about the start of the season is the now five-year tradition I have with two friends from high school, Dave and Gayle, who have joined me at the last five Mets home openers. It began in 2000, when the Mets opened with two games in Japan against the Cubs. The three of us and a former co-worker of mine had seats down the right-field line, where we watched a 1-1 duel between Al Leiter and Sterling Hitchcock carry on into the eighth. Moments after a fan behind me speculated what a great start to his Mets career it would be for Derek Bell to hit a home run leading off the eighth, he lined a pitch into the bleachers in left field, and we roared when Armando Benitez came in to shut the door.

The next year, it became an annual affair when we couldn’t pass up the chance to watch the Mets raise the NL Championship banner while hosting the Braves, who had failed again to turn a division championship into a World Series title. They won that one 9-4 with the help of the first home run by a Japanese position player when Tsuyoshi Shinjo launched one to center. By the end of the game, the sun had warmed us up and we relaxed as the crowds filed out, enjoying the spring air.

In 2002 it was the true Opening Day, the first game of the season between the Mets and Pirates. Another win, 6-2, and another great dinner at the ESPN Zone watching the other ongoing games on the dozens of TVs.

Last year we froze our asses off despite box seats in the left-field mezzanine that had us in the sun all day. It didn’t help that the Cubs whipped the Mets 15-2 and my gut feeling of a lousy season was dead-on.

Monday, my mom made her first Opening Day trip and when we finally reached the upper level and passed our section to get food, she looked up at the sign above the tunnel. “Rows A-V … Are we at the top???” Indeed, we were. Up there, the wind whipped us from front and back, but by the sixth inning, we weren’t complaining. A 10-0 Mets lead made it more bearable and the falling rain didn’t touch us under the overhang. As some folks began to leave to get out of the packed parking lot or into somewhere — anywhere — warm, we moved down two or three rows and already felt much better.

As expected, the bullpen turned a 10-1 game into a 10-6 game with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, but it merely meant an earlier Shea appearance for new closer Braden Looper than we’d expected back when it was a 10-run lead.

Two pitches, double play, Mets win.

I’ll never get tired of Opening Day. Mike Hampton started for the Braves and could only get eight outs, allowing seven runs in the process. Because he was once a Mets hero — the last time I saw him pitch live, he chucked a complete-game shutout to put the Mets into the 2000 World Series — we took delight in hailing him with the slow chant of “HAM-pton … HAM-pton … HAM-pton.” Some tried to mock the tomahawk chop, but that’s been done. I prefered the personal touch, despite the hit my fantasy team ERA took when I didn’t follow my gut feeling and kept Hampton in the lineup (I erred the wrong way last night, benching John Thomson and missing out on eight innings of one-run ball in a win).

On Opening Day, you get the best pitchers — Kerry Wood last year — and catch new Mets and visiting players in their team, major-league or home debuts. Other than the aforementioned Bell and Shinjo, it’s meant Tom Glavine and Kaz Matsui, who, along with Mike Cameron, gave us plenty of reasons to cheer on Monday.

It was my 85th game overall since I first saw an Angels-Yankees game in the Bronx in August 1983 and the 42nd that has involved the Mets. The win put the Amazin’s at an even .500, 21-21, in such contests. At Shea, they’re 20-15.

Despite the prices, despite the attitudes and abilities of the players, I doubt I’ll ever tire of taking an April Monday off to spend the afternoon at the ballpark in Queens. I’ve got a long way to go to match the one person who was congratulated for his 41st consecutive Opening Day at Shea — each one the stadium has had — but I’m only 27. There’s still time.

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