SAN FRANCISCO — Baseball is back, ladies and gentlemen.
You remember baseball, right? It used to be America’s Pastime before fantasy football and NFL RedZone transformed our gladiator sport into a Schedule One narcotic.
Obviously college and prep are on their way, but nothing signifies the return of everything good in this world like the start of Major League Baseball.
After a 2-1 series win in Milwaukee to start the year, the San Francisco Giants home opener brought the Los Angeles Dodgers to town — a team so many of us love to hate.
Living legend Willie Mays was in the building. The daughters of the recently passed Monte Irvin, who helped break the color barrier, threw out the first pitch.
Under a partly sunny sky resembling stretched out cotton candy, life was breathed back into AT&T Park.
Sold out, as always; engaged, as always.
As an Atlanta Braves fan pre-2015 and post-2016, I envy this. In the South it’s a culture, sure, but out here it’s a way of life. That’s why they own the longest sellout streak in the National League (Thursday was No. 409) and have put well over 3 million butts into these green seats the past five years.
Let’s be real, though. Three World Series titles in six years puts some weight on that bandwagon.
“I just think it’s the whole atmosphere,” said manager Bruce Bochy before the game. “When you stand up on that railing and you look around and it’s a packed house every day and, of course with the opener, it’s going to be loud here.
“You really have to consider yourself fortunate to have what we have here — this tremendous fan base and the support that we have — you take it in. Opening day is always a special day, but it’s everyday here. I just look around and see how much these fans love their ballclub here.”
That kind of dedication is usually coupled with expectations, and it’s not just because it’s an even year (I had to mention it at some point).
As sort of an equivalent to basketball’s plus-minus statistic, WRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which attempts to credit a player for the value of each hit rather than blending them together, the Giants rank in the top half of the league in seven of their eight positions.
With the acquisitions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to solidify the rotation, optimism can be dressed with confidence.
But don’t let Thursday’s 12-6 final score fool you.
That confidence was palpably fleeting in the early goings as starting pitcher Jake Peavy struggled with his command and balls were finding gaps in every deep pocket of the outfield. The offense wasn’t much better, going a pedestrian 3 of 15 to start and facing a 4-0 deficit in the home half of the fifth inning.
Enjoyment was still being had, though. Foul balls were finding the gloves of fans and each section cheered its hero. Mini cartons of Dibs ice cream were being flung from vendors to sunny patrons in exchange for currency. GoPros and selfie sticks snapped smiles with scores far from view.
But suddenly, everything changed.
Credit the T-shirt toss or the impending pitching change, but the best batting infield in baseball began playing like it in the bottom of the fifth once Joe Panik crushed a triple and Buster Posey followed it with a double. Trailing 4-3 in the sixth, Angel Pagan gave his first of multiple examples of why Bochy’s idea of putting a batter at ninth and pitcher at eighth could be trendsetting, scoring Matt Duffy and Brandon Crawford for the lead.
When the margin widened to three runs, the collective joy of 41,940 began to overflow and the universe made sense again. Chants of “Beat LA” ripped through the park like a wildfire.
Rich traditions like singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “God Bless America,” and reliever Sergio Romo’s salsa-inducing entrance song of “El Mechon” felt richer.
The fiesta felt short-lived once Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson smashed a two-run shot into the seats. The fans in that section weren’t interested in that souvenir, chucking it back to the tune of approving applause, stopping play as it dribbled toward Panik’s feet at second base. Doubt had crept in once again.
But Hunter Pence said, “Be easy, my people,” obliterating a 1-0 pitch to left for a grand slam — the sixth of his career.
Arms around neighbors, whether it was a friend or stranger, the first sing-along to Journey’s “Lights” of the 2016 season was to the melody of victory.
As the lights, went down, in the city.