Major Leagues: Renewed spirits, possible empty seats
By Ben Walker
Ken Griffey Jr. swinging again for Seattle, K-Rod now closing for the New York Mets. A championship rematch at Fenway Park, a new start for CC Sabathia.
A year after the Tampa Bay Rays proved most anything is possible, opening day brings renewed spirit all over baseball ó plus worries of more and more empty seats.
Even after finishing with a majors-worst 102 losses last year and then losing their general manager in a scandal this spring, the Washington Nationals were eager to get going.
“Once the bell rings and the national anthem plays and the games really count, I think these guys are going to be really energized,” manager Manny Acta said.
Twelve games are set for today, starting in Cincinnati when Francisco Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and the revamped Mets visit chilly Great American Ball Park. Later, AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and the Cleveland Indians will watch former President George W. Bush throw out the first ball in Texas.
The AL champion Rays get an early test in Boston against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox. At night, Manny Ramirez begins his first full year in LA when the Dodgers open at San Diego.
A forecast of snow, cold and high winds in Chicago forced postponement of the game between Kansas City and the White Sox. They’ll try again Tuesday.
The 2009 season opened Sunday night in Philadelphia, where the defending World Series champion Phillies played Atlanta.
Several big names will be absent at the get-go. Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Mauer, Trevor Hoffman and John Lackey are among the injured. Also missing is Phillies reliever J.C. Romero, suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball after testing positive for a banned substance.
While A-Rod admitted taking steroids in 2001-03 while with Texas, the nonstop talk about performance-enhancing drugs seemed to diminish this spring. But concerns over the effects of the economy certainly increased.
MLB expects to see overall attendance drop as much as 7 percent, despite two-thirds of the 30 teams lowering either their average ticket price or some level of seats.
The Toronto Blue Jays offered season tickets in the upper deck for under $1 per game and the Minnesota Twins tied the cost of 6,500 outfield seats to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
“You won’t see it as much in New York, but I think the teams that are going to be hurt a little bit obviously are small-market teams,” Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said.
The two new ballparks in New York, the $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium and $800 million Citi Field, host their regular-season openers next week.
In the meantime, Sabathia starts Monday for the Yankees at Baltimore. The ace signed a $161 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees, who also brought in pricey Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
“Hopefully I get the team off to a good start and get myself off to a good start,” Sabathia said.
Johan Santana will start for the Mets in Cincinnati, where it’s expected to be rainy and in the upper 30s at gametime. After adding Rodriguez and J.J. Putz to the bullpen, New York hopes to avoid a third straight September collapse.
For now, though, it’s time to focus on opening day.
“You still get the butterflies, you still get the sleepless nights. It’s good. It’s like that excitement, it’s that nervous energy. And that’s what you’re looking for,” Mets third baseman David Wright said.
Don Wakamatsu certainly is excited. He’ll manage his first game in the majors when Seattle plays at Minnesota, marking the start of the Twins’ last season at the 27-year-old Metrodome. Lou Piniella is equally enthused ó he presides over a Cubs team beginning its 101st season since last winning the World Series.
Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, who pitched a no-hitter against the Astros last year, starts in Houston against Roy Oswalt. Piniella is glad to be playing games for real, following an exhibition season that included late road trips to Las Vegas and New York.
“It was a long spring,” he said.