A Story of Opening Day (April 4, 2001)

There is no better beginning to a week than watching a baseball game, and there is no better baseball game than Opening Day, that mythic beast full of bunting and beer and overpriced peanut shells strewn like broken promises on the walkways sticky with spilled soda and mustard smears. The game, as any connoisseur knows, begins long before you push through the stadium turnstile. Here are the details of my Opening Day, April 2, 2001.

Monday, April 2, 7:40am — I wake up, think of Livan Hernandez clutching the rosin bag while the crowd roars. But it’s not the sound of sold-out PacBell that I hear, but the garbage truck idling in the street, then the mechanical whine of the hydraulics pressing moldy macaroni salad and onion skins down into the bowels of the truck. I glide back into dreamflight, trying to envision myself jogging onto the field while 50-year-old men in suspenders scream my name and cheer the sight of my oblong head and shiny spikes.

8:54am — As I run up Market Street I pass a homeless man in a Giants cap and well-worn 49er jacket. He’s pushing a shopping cart filled with cardboard and bottles. This is a sign, a good sign, similar to chicken bones aligning themselves in the shape of a diamond after being tossed by a voodoo priestess in a tin shack on the Bayou. Ex-Giant Will “The Thrill” Clark, rumored to be throwing out today’s first pitch, grew up in Louisiana and played at Mississippi State. But you knew that.

8:59 a.m. — Rummaging through the recycling center next to Safeway, I am momentarily doubled over by the excruciating memory of Candy Maldonado misplaying a mediocre fly ball to right in the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals back in the late 80s. Candy went into one of those stupid slides modern players go into too often instead of simply running through the ball. He went down into the fatal jive-ass maneuver, botched the catch, and the Cardinals went on to the World Series while deserving fans like myself went into an angry place filled with loneliness and government workers. From somewhere, I don’t know where, the courage is summoned to choke back the tears. I notice a Shaun Cassidy album cover propped against a rusting bicycle frame. I pick up three rocks from a modest-sized gravel pile and get into a crouch, pretending to be late great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson firing out of a stance to gun down a pigeon base runner wandering off third. A flutter of wings and a siren in the distance. Put on your game faces, boys, this here’s the start of something beautiful if not profound.

9:45am — Over cheerios and watery ceylon tea I scan the sports pages, eager for clues, hints, prosaic antacid in the form of statistics and other lies. Giants second baseman Jeff Kent was National League MVP in 2000. Manager Dusty Baker was Manager of the Year. But Ellis Burks and his 30 homers and 100 ribbies flew the coop for Cleveland. Can J.T. Snow and Armando Rios pick up the slack? Or would you rather have world peace and a job that doesn’t demean?

9:47am — Al Gore. Ha ha ha hee hee hee. That’s a good one. Even if Bush is a monkey, at least he’s an organic life form, albeit somewhere between a plankton and a shallot on the intelligence scale. But Gore? Ha ha ha hee hee hee.

10:31am — Walking up Broadway to Columbus, it’s an enchanted day. The exhaust from the double-parked milk truck is the nectar of the gods. Sunlight dances in the grimy massage parlor windows. Hurry-up execu-dykes cloppety-clop down the libertine sidewalk. Rock and fire, baby, just strikes, thataway, nice and easy, pitch and catch and smoke ’em if you got ’em.

10:49am — Molinari’s, a North Beach icon. You pick out your own bread from a bin stuffed with freshly baked buns, then hand it to one of four men behind the counter. It’s a no-frills Italian deli. The three other patrons are talking baseball, Opening Day. I order four North Beach Specials for my comrades and me. The hallowed NB Special consists of prosciutto, red peppers, provolone and little olive oil. Graceful, not self-conscious, unadorned by excess but a considerable sandwich nonetheless.

11:21am — Grant Avenue in Chinatown is packed: tourists gawking at wind-up parakeets that make awful screech. Delivery men hustle crates of live chickens into restaurants. Elderly women carry pink plastic bags stuffed with oranges and egg cartons and leafy bok choy. Fruit stands. Ducks and pork in the windows. Old neon bar signs and crumbling wabi-sabi facades next to golden lion bank entrances and sacks of rice piled to the rafters. Incense and cigarette smoke. Jangly Chinese opera music and the thwump-thwump of disco from tricked-out Honda Civics fight for control of your ears, and people in throngs and crowds and even alone, hurrying and slouching and spitting into gutters. Framed against a sunlit wall a motionless woman luxuriates in the blush of spring, eyes closed, holding a cup of coffee in her hand.

12:15pm — Walking down Second Street towards PacBell Park, in the thickening sea of fans and excitement. Past the Museum of Modern Art, past the quiet hostility of cell phone conversations, past honking cars and wheezing buses and two men in wheelchairs. Putting a little more force into each step, remembering a line from Iggy Pop: “I need some loving like a fastball needs control.”

12:31pm — Suddenly as if from nowhere appears the stadium. The light fixtures towering above the park’s upper lip, flower of reinforced steel and poured concrete, thousands of fans congregating by the gates, on the crosswalks, disgorging from streetcars and marching up alongside the bay to take their whacks.

12:45pm — My first visit to the rest room is splendid, as dozens of urinals have been added in the off season. I’ve heard that a civilization is gauged by its system of sewage disposal. Make a mental note to confirm.

12:52pm — Giants first baseman J.T. Snow is presented with his sixth consecutive Gold Glove. Cheering.

12:53pm — Giants second baseman Jeff Kent is presented with his National League MVP plaque. Cheering.

12:54pm — Dusty Baker is presented with his third Manager of the Year award. Wild applause. Some garlic fries are dropped on the mezzanine level.

1:01pm — The teams are introduced. Padre Tony Gwynn is cheered heartily. San Diego Manager Bruce Boche hobbles out on crutches.

1:09pm — A voice comes on the P.A. system. “Please direct your attention, ladies and gentlemen, to the infield grass where Englebert Humperdink will sing the National Anthem. Also, we are honored to have today the Fist of the Fleet, who will make a special Opening Day fly-over.”Fist of the Fleet”? Isn’t that a bar in the Castro? Englebert Humperdink? This is not a good sign. Humperdink gets through the song, and then we’re buzzed by a trio of jetplanes. Twice. What a silly and stupid country.

1:11pm — Will Clark throws out the first pitch. A strike. Forty thousand fans shriek their approval.

1:13pm — The San Francisco starters run onto the field, save pitcher Livan Hernandez who briskly walks. PacBell Park is on its feet.

1:14pm — On the deck of a boat anchored in the water just beyond the right field wall a statuesque woman in a 40s-style bathing suit shakes a martini and listens to the pre-game show. She grew up a Dodgers fan, but her fourth husband harbored an unhealthy infatuation with Willie Mays, and so gradually, without realizing what was happening, she transferred her loyalties from Dodger blue to San Francisco black.

1:15pm — A San Diego Padre batter steps into the batter’s box. Hernandez goes into his windup. Strike one. We should end it right here, with the Giants ahead in the count, the outfield a brilliant green, the players alert and readying for the next pitch. It’s perfect. I lean back against the chair, thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald riding in a convertible down 5th Avenue in New York after the unimagined success of “The Beautiful and The Damned,” his first novel. He wept because he thought he could never match the moment again, for purity and for youth. A romantic gesture he spent the rest of his too-short life trying to prove true. After the game perhaps a gin in tribute to all the ballplayers struggling through all the different games. Hernandez coils into another pitch. Strike two. The wind whips the flags in deep center. A vendor calls out “Ice cold cokes here!” From somewhere behind me a child shouts for a strikeout.

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