Even on the occasions when there is no new banner to be revealed, no defending champion to be revered, the Red Sox annually get the mood and the moment right on Opening Day.
There is room for pomp no matter the previous season’s circumstances. The first ballgame at Fenway is cause enough for celebration, especially so this year after the interminable winter New England endured. I suppose Mother Nature deserves a tip of the cap, at last answering our pleas and delivering perfect weather to coincide with the sunny outlook.
Sure, there is familiarity in Red Sox event maestro Dr. Charles Steinberg’s formula for Opening Day festivities. That’s unavoidable. Even with the occasional forays into schmaltz, why stray from something done right?
The routine is as welcome as it is comfortable: The current roster is introduced. The highlight reels roll. Boston-centric music fills Fenway. Nostalgia and optimism take turns seizing your emotions.
And special guest stars appear, their presence always welcomed and saluted.
This year, scenes to remember included Pedro Martinez hello-old-friend embrace of Pete Frates, the former Boston College baseball captain and inspiration for the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. Pedro’s effervescent kindness and Frates’s abundant courage made for a heartwarming encounter that, while hardly impromptu, could not have felt more authentic.
It must also be noted that Tom Brady, a former Montreal Expos draft pick, bounced the ceremonial first pitch, confirming that the golden arm is calibrated solely for throwing a football these days. I suppose we can forgive him for the 58-footer, especially since he was accompanied to the mound by the newest Lombardi Trophy in the Patriots’ collection, dazzling confirmation – as if anyone needed it — that he does throw that other ball rather well.
While the past and present are appreciated during the pregame festivities, the future is a territory that Dr. Steinberg cannot navigate. Celebrating what hasn’t occurred yet isn’t in his repertoire. Those revelations – those times when a promising player emerges as a star to be reckoned with in the present — arrive only through the action of the ballgame.
Opening Day gave us that, too. Oh, did it ever. Mookie Betts, the Red Sox’ dynamic 22-year-old center fielder, drew rave after rave this spring, a cacophony of praise that surely drove up him several rounds up the draft board in your fantasy baseball league.
While there had been occasional crackles of electricity from Betts through the first six games, he did carry a .192 batting average into the home opener. It was a small sample and of smaller concern, but the expectations born from his spectacular 2014 season at three levels are real, and the hope is that Betts continues his thus-far unimpeded success before expectations get heavy.
Well, how about this for success?
In the first half-inning played at Fenway this season, Betts robbed the Nationals’ Bryce Harper of what appeared to be a two-run home run in the making with a leaping catch in front of the bullpen.
“I just know I told Vic [right fielder Shane Victorino] at one point I was going to try and catch it,” Betts said. “He hit it pretty high, figured I could get back there at least to the wall. I got back there, thought I had a chance and just timed it.”
The catch was the first highlight. It was hardly his lone highlight, and he may have even trumped it in that inaugural inning.
In the bottom of the first, Betts walked, swiped second, and, with the presence of mind of a player far more experienced, continued right on to third base after noticing the bag was left uncovered due to the shifted infield configuration with David Ortiz at-bat. That made him just the 11th player in history to steal two bases on the same play.
One inning in the game, and Betts had already stolen the show. He was hardly finished. In the bottom of the second inning, Betts launched a three-run homer off Jordan Zimmermann, staking Rick Porcello and the Red Sox to a 4-0 lead in an eventual 9-4 win. He added an RBI infield single in the third, finishing the day 2 for 4 with two runs scored and four RBIs.
Hanley Ramirez offered a succinct summary of the ballgame when it was over.
“The Mookie Betts show,’’ he said.
Perhaps it doesn’t necessarily take one phenom to recognize another, but it must be noted that Betts’s overall performance made an impression on one National in particular.
“There are so many guys that are so good at the age,’’ said Harper, who is in his fourth major league season but 10 days younger than Betts. “Seeing what he did today, that bat speed he has, the running ability he has, being able to play center field like he does, he’d be in the lineup every day if I were writing a lineup.
“He’s an unbelievable ballplayer. He’s a lot of fun to watch. I wish he hadn’t robbed that homer … but great players make great plays.”
If the he’s-a-hell-of-a-young-player assessment from the younger Harper isn’t ironic enough for you, consider this:
Betts’s two home runs this season have come off Zimmermann and the Phillies’ Cole Hamels. Baseball hypotheticals help us get through that long winter, and there were recurring ones suggesting either of those two accomplished pitchers could be had by the Red Sox – if they’d part with Betts.
Rumors are fun, but on this day, reality was so much better.
Betts was never going anywhere, except to the top of the Red Sox batting order.
We know you’ll plan accordingly, Dr. Steinberg. It looks like Betts is going to be in that spot for many more Opening Days, stealing your show again and again.