At Yankees Opening Day, baseball remains life

Opening Day can be many things, especially for a Yankees fan.

It’s an item at the top of the baseball bucket list. Some may call it baseball’s Woodstock. For us New Yorkers, it is practically a rite of passage.

Because, to paraphrase the amazing Dani Rojas, baseball is life in the Big Apple. Whether you like the Yankees or Mets, the city’s energy just changes when baseball season begins. Everyone’s in a good mood and not as rough around the edges.

So as my wife Caitlin and I waited for the D train at 125th Street, our collective anticipation mounted. This would be our first-ever Opening Day, having missed it the previous two years because of the pandemic. Caitlin didn’t even care that she would have to leave early to pick up our daughter from day care, just being in Yankee Stadium for a short while would be enough.

Onto the D, off at 161st Street, right to Yankee Tavern, home of the best chicken parm sub in the Empire State. It was too crowded for one today, but every Yankees fan has their pre and post-game bar. It’s either Yankee Tavern, Stan’s, or Dugout. Billy’s is for tourists.

Sure enough, we walked into Stan’s and saw friends. My friend Peter Bernstein and I shared a bear hug along with the celebratory bellows of running into each other by chance. New York City, both the greatest city and smallest town in America all at the same time.

“Just remember,” I said to Peter. “If we lose today, it’s your fault.”

“Nope, it’s yours!” he sniped back. “I saw Gerrit Cole three times last year and was 3-0!”

A beer and a shot later, it was ballpark time. Section 434A, Row 1, Seats 1 and 2. Here we were, at long last, inside Yankee Stadium’s hallowed halls for the first sold-out Opening Day in three years.

It was just like old times. New York waited two long years to have this again and the energy matched. Cheers for New York legend Billy Crystal when he tossed out the first pitch. Boos for Gerrit Cole when he lost the strike zone and gave up a 3-spot in the first inning. Cheers again when Anthony Rizzo launched the first Yankee homer of the season, and again when Giancarlo Stanton tied the game with a bullet.

Even after Caitlin left in the fifth inning and I met up with more friends in the legendary right field bleachers, the game was everything it was supposed to be. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry never disappoints, especially on Opening Day. Considering Boston won 8-2 in the Bronx the last time these two played on Opening Day in 2013, a tight game seemed necessary.

Close games mean high emotions, and those continued without regard to the crowd’s blood pressure. The usually robotic DJ LeMahieu actually shouted and pumped his fist after tying the game 4-4 with a solo shot. Nobody noticed because we were too busy exhaling after the ball cleared the fence.

Of course, there was plenty of signature Yankees “all is lost” kvetching too. A fan named AJ complained of Gleyber Torres taking two quick swings to fall down 0-2 with the bases loaded in the 10th inning and the Yankees down 5-4. Torres tied the game with a sac fly two pitches later.

Cut to the bottom of the 11th, and everyone in the bleachers was on their feet. I was with my friends Eddie and Laney, two of the craziest Yankees fans in Brooklyn. As the Red Sox took the field again, Laney looked at the two of us with a soft yet serious smile.

“Love you guys,” he said. “Now let’s go. Walk this off.”

Eddie looked at his phone and received a text from a Mets fan friend with one simple message: “Walk-off coming.”

Josh Donaldson’s single snuck through, Isaiah Kiner-Falefa scored, and all of Section 202 collapsed into a victorious group hug only true baseball fans can describe.

That’s when it hit me, as we caught our balance and made our way towards the exit ramps. Through all the chants of “Let’s go, Yankees!” and “Boston sucks!”, the true meaning of Opening Day came to light.

Going to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium is a rite of passage for both New Yorkers and baseball fans worldwide. Every ballpark’s Opening Day is special in its own right, sure, but Yankees-Red Sox at the big ballpark in the Bronx? Call me biased, but that carries a certain type of mystique that simply must be experienced in person, especially after a walk-off win.

But most important of all, between all the friends I ran into before, during, and after the game, some of whom I didn’t even know were attending, Opening Day is also another thing that has nothing to do with baseball. It’s a family reunion where everyone drops the drama and just has a good time.

The hugs and high-fives are aplenty. The beer flows while we all breathe in that classic aroma of hot dog grease, peanut shells, and popcorn salt.

And I, for one, can’t wait to do it all again next year.

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