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It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

When I was in elementary school at PS 190 (82nd between 1st and 2nd), we had a music teacher named Ms. Rosen, who started a school chorus. I was a member and during my two-year tenure as a sorprano, I had the opportunity to perform a solo during a performance at the ritzy Plaza Hotel.

Ms. Rosen loved Christmas songs and shared her adoration with her chorus and the music classes. They got drummed into us pretty good because of weekly repetition. I don't celebrate Christmas, but for whatever reason, I like Christmas and holiday music. My tastes range from "Frosty the Snowman" to "My Two Front Teeth" to "Winter Wonderland." I find these songs soothing, but I don't know why. So this week, I'm going to spin a holiday theme throughout my blog posts, be in it the titles or the stories themselves.

In baseballese, the most wonderful time of the year isn't Christmastime (except for the recently signed ex-free agents who are busy counting their money), but rather Opening Day, because that's when everyone is at their most optimistic. Players, managers, owners and fans believe that anything is possible. Spring is in the air and their is a spring in everyone's step. Even if you're a fan of the Kansas City Royals.

It seems silly to say this now, but on Opening Day, 2004 their was every reason to believe that this was going to be a magical season for the Royals, and in particular, a current member of the Mets. Kansas City was coming off an improbably successful 2003 season in which it started 9-0, finished a respectable 83-79 and had the tag of Midwestern laughingstock temporarily removed. The Royals were a trendy choice to win the AL Central and perhaps a little more in 2004 ,because this is baseball and we tend to believe in underdogs like little kids believe in Santa Claus. That's why it didn't seem that improbable when Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski latched on to Brian Anderson and said he could win 20 games and that the Royals could be a World Series contender.

For the first eight-and-a-half innings, the Grinch tried to steal Christmas, or rather the White Sox decided to seize the opportunity for a win, grabbing a 7-3 lead heading into the last of the ninth inning. The largest Opening Day crowd in Royals history had been given a lump of coal, but one that was about to turn into a pot of gold.

Every good rally seems to start with a leadoff walk and Joe Randa, who seems to find a way to be involved in games like this, drew one to open the ninth. Ken Harvey followed with a walk. That drew debuting White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen out and he replaced reliever Cliff Politte with the man he hoped would be his closer that season, Billy Koch. That didn't help matters. Benito Santiago greeted Koch with a double to left, scoring Randa to make it a 7-4 game.

Koch settled in and struck out Aaron Guiel, and then the game turned into a managerial chessmatch. Royals manager Tony Pena sent up lefty Matt Stairs to bat for former Tony Graffanino and Guillen countered by yanking Koch in favor of lefty Damaso Marte.

Pena had an incredibly successful season playing hunches in 2003, so he figured he could push his luck into the next campaign as well, and pinch-hit for Stairs with righty utility man Mendy Lopez. Marte made a mistake and Lopez, who would hit .105 with only four hits for the season crushed it like no other pitch he'd ever hit before. It landed 420 feet away, over the centerfield fence, for a game-tying home run. The Royals had tied the game, but they weren't quite done yet.

Angel Berroa followed the home run with a single, bringing Carlos Beltran to the plate. If the Royals were going to have a big year in 2004, they were going to need Beltran to come through in moments like this. This was one of those moments where Beltran was going to show he was worthy of the big contract that was forthcoming in Flushing.

Marte and Beltran battled to a 2-2 count and then it was Beltran's turn to become the man of the moment. He turned on a Marte pitch and pummeled it over the left field fence for a walk-off two-run home run. If the fans had silver bells, we would have heard them from hundreds of miles away. Instead they clapped their Thunderstix (a dreadful invention) and crowed something the equivalent of "Ho Ho Ho!" celebrating the holidays seven months in advance
of their occurrence.

"This is a game I'm going to remember for the rest of my life," Beltran said to reporters after the biggest Opening Day comeback win in more than a century. "To be behind by four runs and to win, what can be better than this?"

As it turned out, that was an appropriate question. The Royals were a walking disaster in 2004 , losing 104 games. Nothing went right after Opening Day and Beltran eventually ended up in Houston, and now New York, where his initial effort left him likely pining for a time like this date, when baseball was the hap-happiest season of all.

True Metsmas fans know...The Mets have had walk-off wins on Opening Day in 1975, 1985, and 1998. I have written about two of those games here


Binny said…
Castillo was in '97, not '98. Nice post, though.
metswalkoffs said…
actually, twas 1998...1997 opening day was in san diego...

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