|Home sweet home. (Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)|
For the first time in over 18 months, Citi Field opened its gates today for baseball-starved fans. And just like they did on September 29, 2019, the Mets sent their fans home happy after walking off with a win. Back then, the celebration came on a three-run homer by Dominic Smith. Today, it was a combination of a Jeff McNeil game-tying birthday blast followed by a bizarre hit-by-pitch of Michael Conforto with the bases loaded. The Mets scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to defeat the Miami Marlins in the home opener by a score of 3-2.
Today's win marked the 30th consecutive Opening Day game that I attended in which fans were allowed in the building. And the victory came thirty years to the day of my first home opener.
I've had many memorable moments throughout those three decades of Opening Day affairs. I've seen a franchise's first game in 1993 when the Mets defeated the Colorado Rockies, 3-0. Two years later, I saw the Mets erase a five-run deficit when I wasn't watching fans running on the field throwing dollar bills at players in New York's first home game after the eight-month players' strike. I've also witnessed the fielding excellence of Rey Ordoñez in a 1996 Opening Day victory and saw Alberto Castillo's sole magical moment as a Met in a 1-0, 14-inning win two years later. Two National League pennants have been raised with me in attendance and a new ballpark opened its doors with yours truly cheering the Mets on.
But my first home opener took place on April 8, 1991, exactly 30 years ago today. And that one was special for more than just a Mets victory. You see, that trip to the ballpark was also my first date. And what better place to take someone special than Shea Stadium to see Mets legends Tommy Herr, Charlie O'Brien and new shortstop Howard Johnson taking the field against Von Hayes and the Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, that game was more than just a first date; it also began an Opening Day tradition that has continued to this day.
I love my wife. And I met her at a Mets game. True story. She was a blogger, as was I, and we were both going to "Build-A-Bear Night" at Citi Field on August 1, 2009. So we decided to meet up on the Promenade Level before the game. Of course, we had our new bears in tow, and I had a few other bears with me. We talked about bears and the Mets, then saw the game separately from our regular seats.
Later that month, we went to our first game together. Naturally, the bears were our chaperones. We met up a few more times during the season's final month. Then I asked her what she was doing during the off-season. Notice I didn't say "during the winter" because to a Mets fan, there are only two seasons - baseball season and the off-season. Well, that phrasing struck a chord with her. Needless to say, what we did during the off-season was spend more time together and fall in love. The following May, we got married, then waited two months to go on our honeymoon in San Francisco. Why the wait? Because the Mets weren't due to play the Giants on the road until July. Yup, I gave her a diamond AFTER we got married.
I never said we were a conventional couple.
Almost 20 years before I met the love of my life, I went on my first-ever date. The day was April 8, 1991, and my date's name was K.V. (I'm using her initials in case she's reading this and doesn't want to be associated with a bear-carrying Mets fanatic.) Most people go to the movies or dinner or a combination of the two on a first date. Not me. Where did I take K.V. on our date? Like you need to ask...
It was Opening Day. So we went to Shea Stadium.
The temperature that day was an unseasonably hot 90º. At the time, it was the earliest date on the calendar that New York had ever registered a 90º reading. We were both undergraduates at St. John's University, finishing up our sophomore years. Her mother worked in the school library, so I had already gotten that first meeting with her out of the way. We actually went to visit K.V.'s mother prior to leaving for Shea, at which time she told us to have a good time and stay out of the sun, if at all possible.
The Mets were fielding a brand-new team in 1991 as they embarked on what the team hoped would be its eighth consecutive winning season. But this would also be the first time since 1983 that Davey Johnson wouldn't come out of the dugout during the Opening Day introductions, as Buddy Harrelson had taken over for the former skipper during the previous season.
K.V. confessed to me that it was her first baseball game as we proceeded to sit in our Upper Deck seats on the first base side. I confessed to her that it was my first-ever date with anyone, to which she said, "Awww, and you chose me. I'm so honored."
As the game began, I noticed that four of the starting nine players on the Mets had not been with the team at the beginning of the previous campaign. Charlie O'Brien was calling the game behind the plate, while former Cardinal nemeses Tommy Herr and Vince Coleman were the Mets' new second baseman and center fielder, respectively. Right field used to be where Darryl Strawberry had his patch, but he had left for Los Angeles as a free agent. In his stead was a player who was very special to long-time Mets fans, including myself, but had not worn a Mets uniform since 1984. And this was how he was re-introduced.
"Playing right field, No. 7. Welcome back, Huuuubie Brooooks."
|I'd have bought one of these, but I chose to save the money for my date.|
Hubie Brooks made a quick impression on me during his first stint in New York. It was Brooks who hit the first home run I ever saw in person. On June 15, 1983, I was at Shea Stadium with my Little League teammates when Brooks took future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins deep in the fourth inning. It was the only home run Brooks would ever hit off Jenkins in 18 career plate appearances, and one of only two hits he would muster off the pitching legend.
Eight years after I cheered Brooks as he touched home plate following his homer, I would cheer him again as he scored, although this time he touched the plate in a completely different way.
The Mets were leading the Phillies, 1-0, as the game headed into the bottom of the fourth. Hubie Brooks led off the inning by roping a double to right field - his first hit as a Met in seven years. Brooks then advanced to third on a fly ball by Howard Johnson. Left fielder Kevin McReynolds failed to bring him home when he grounded out weakly to third base. With two outs, Tommy Herr drew a walk to put runners on the corners. That brought up Charlie O'Brien, whose .209 career batting average entering the game was six points lower than Mario Mendoza's .215 lifetime mark.
You read that right. The namesake of the "Mendoza Line" was a better hitter than Charlie O'Brien.
Clearly, if the Mets were going to extend their lead, manager Buddy Harrelson was going to have to try something different. So he did. On an 0-1 pitch, Harrelson had Herr steal second. When Phillies catcher Darren Daulton threw the ball to second in an attempt to nail Herr, Brooks darted for the plate, sliding home safely to give the Mets a 2-0 lead.
The unexpected play caused K.V. and I to simultaneously jump out of seats and embrace. Yup, it was our first hug, and Hubie Brooks made it happen. With the Mets now holding a two-run lead, we decided to get some refreshing ice cream to cool down on the sweltering day. By the time we got to the concession stand, John Kruk had homered off Dwight Gooden to cut the Mets' lead back to a single run.
Needless to say, we went back to our seats and didn't leave our section again until the final out was recorded.
In the seventh inning, as we were singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", K.V. accidentally bumped into my leg. So I bumped her back. We ended up doing what appeared to be a strange leg-bump dance for the duration of the song. It was then that I realized that I could do something other than calculate players' batting averages in my head. I could also flirt. Score one for me.
Speaking of scoring, there were no more runs scored after Kruk's fifth-inning homer. The Mets held on for a 2-1 victory, making my first date - and my first-ever Opening Day game - a complete success.
After the game, K.V. and I walked back to Main Street in Flushing, where we had two additional ice cream cones (mint chocolate chip for both of us), then we took the bus back to her house. I was a gentleman, and didn't ask to go in, but she insisted. I didn't spend much time inside, but when I left, I did get a kiss goodbye.
I scored more that day than the Phillies did.
K.V. and I continued to hang out during our remaining college years, but we never went to another Mets game. We also didn't really date much more after that hot April afternoon. Perhaps that's a good thing. After all, had something happened between us, I might never have met my wife on "Build-A-Bear Night" nearly two decades later.
Hubie Brooks and I go way back. He was responsible for the first home run I ever witnessed at a ballgame, and he was responsible for the first (and to this date, only) double steal I've ever had the privilege to see in person. He may also have helped me get that special kiss at the end of my first date.
April 8, 1991 was most certainly a good day.
Just like April 8, 1991 was a memorable day at Shea Stadium that culminated with a one-run victory by the Mets, April 8, 2021 was also one to remember at Citi Field, and not just because of the Mets' 3-2 walk-off win. Today's game was the first in which fans were allowed to attend since before the pandemic caused daily fan attendance to be zero. It was also the 30th consecutive Opening Day I've been fortunate to attend and the eleventh I've been to with my wife.
Many things have changed in this world since 1991. Heck, mostly everything has changed just since the start of 2020. But the more things change, the more one thing remains the same. I'll always be present at a Mets home opener. And I'll always be there with my favorite date. There's no one else I'd rather open up a season with.