Opening Night: And So It Begins. Again.

AP photo by Tom Olmscheid

Representatives of the local sporting press —of which I am a decidedly derelict member— were packed cheek to jowl in the Herb Carneal Memorial Press Box at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome Monday night. It was not, as you might imagine, a pretty picture. If somewhere there exists an International Society of the Churlish, on any given night the average press box is chockful of ideal candidates for membership.

The occasion for this particular gathering, of course, was Opening Day of another baseball season. The opener has long been regarded as one of the Holy Days in all of sports, which means that all sorts of characters —myself, for instance— who tend to make themselves scarce the rest of the season feel obligated to put in an appearance. When it comes to Twins baseball there are, unfortunately, way too many media types who are sort of professional sports versions of Christmas and Easter Only (CEO) churchgoers. I can assure you, though, that wherever you find a bandwagon you’ll find an unruly hoard of media members jockeying for position at the wheel.

I’ve been as guilty as the next guy (or gal) in recent years, but I’m also penitent. Because I swear to you I really am a true believer, and I’m absolutely determined to get right with the baseball gods. Even if it means slogging through a foot of snow to watch a team carrying the weight of almost zero expectations.

I also feel the need to confess that I really wasn’t in the mood to slog through a foot of snow tonight to watch a team carrying the weight of almost zero expectations (surprisingly heavy burden, that). I’m glad I did, though. Almost every time I’ve forced myself to make the drive-and-trudge to the Dome I’ve walked away glad I did.

I love the game, and I was surprised and cheered to see such a large contingent in the press box last night, and even more surprised and cheered to see 49,596 paying customers in the stands —the largest crowd for a Twins game since September 1996.

We all saw a hell of a game. And I know it’s ridiculous to place too much stock in a team’s performance in the first game of a long baseball season, but given that Torii Hunter was in the house, and given that everybody in attendance (or at least everyone who was paying attention) knew by the third inning that Johan Santana had been dazzling in his Mets debut (7 ip, 3 hits, 8 strikeouts, and 2 earned runs), it seemed somehow important, if not urgent, that the Twins give those nearly 50,000 people something to cheer about, and maybe even something to believe in, on an otherwise miserable night in Minnesota.

And they delivered, which was a beautiful thing.

Livan Hernandez, the (maybe) (purportedly) 33-year-old righthander who was acquired so late that he doesn’t even appear in the team’s 2008 media guide, and a guy whose opening day start was already being trotted out by doomsayers as a harbinger of a season of protracted misery (this despite the fact that the big Cuban was making an opening day start for his fourth club, and has long been in the habit of giving his teams a couple hundred innings a year), anyway, yeah, that Livan freaking Hernandez –for at least one night, anyway– went out and dispelled all visions of Sidney Ponson and provided a glimmer of hope that he might be, at the very least, the second coming of Carlos Silva, light somewhere in the vicinity of ten million dollars.

You can all do the math on your own, but out there all over the country last night –including in the opposing dugout at the Dome– there were hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ex-Twins laboring for other teams.

And in every single case I say good for them, and good for the Twins.

I wasn’t thrilled with the Johan Santana deal. Like everybody else I wish the Twins could have gotten more in return. But the reality is they didn’t trade Santana for four players; they traded him for four players and 150 million dollars.

And the Twins didn’t just swap out Hunter for 22-year-old Delmon Young. They shaved ten years off their roster and millions of dollars from their payroll (The Angels are going to pay Hunter $90 million over five years). Anybody remember what kind of player Hunter was when he was 22? I love Torii, but trust me, down the road there won’t be a Twins fan who would trade him even up for Delmon Young.

Or, based on an admittedly small but nonetheless thrilling sample size, for Carlos Gomez, the 22-year-old who was the centerpiece of the Santana deal and trotted out most of his highly-touted tools in his Twins debut. What did we see? Well, shit, you know what you saw, and everybody and their grandmother is going to tell you what you saw, but I’m pretty damn sure it was more than potential. The kid is 6′ 4" and he can fly. We’d heard all about that, but he ran down balls in the gap, went 2-3, stole a couple bases (both on pitch-outs), drew a walk ("It might be the last one," Ron Gardenhire said), scored a couple runs, and exhibited perfect manners and genuine charm in the clubhouse. This was a guy who sat in front of his locker after arguably the most important game of his young career and talked quietly about gratitude and joy and having fun, a guy who admitted to choking up before he took the field.

Directly across the clubhouse from Gomez was Pat Neshek, who came into last night’s game and struck out three of the four men he faced, including Vladimir Guerrero with the tying run on second and first base open. Neshek is a guy who exudes joy and gratitude; practically every time he opens his mouth it’s apparent he still can’t quite believe he’s been given the opportunity to go to work every day in a major league ballpark. The dude’s a vegan, for crying out loud, a fucking vegan warrior in a major league clubhouse. And he’s more than happy to talk about that fact, and to insist that the decision had nothing to do with athletic performance and everything to do with a "lifestyle choice." He’s also more than happy to talk about every pitch to every batter in every game he appears in (and seems to remember all of them in precise detail). When Gary Mathews Jr. blooped a two-out double in the eighth to put the tying run on base with Guerrero coming up, there were all sorts of people sitting around me who felt certain that the prudent choice was to walk Vlad. And when Neshek’s first two pitches missed badly outside it definitely looked like the Twins had made the decision to pitch around him. "Nah," said Neshek. "I was going after him all the way. That’s what I do, get right handers out. You know he’s hacking, so there are a lot of places to miss. I love that challenge." At which point he broke into a huge smile that even blew his eyes wide open. He shook his head, raised his arms in a what-are-you-gonna do gesture and said, "It’s a really fun game."

You spend any time in the Twins clubhouse –and this goes back years now– and you’ll hear some variation of that line repeated again and again, starting in Ron Gardenhire’s office. I’ve long made a habit of poking around in visiting clubhouses and I can tell you that I’ve seldom, if ever, heard that sort of thing espoused anywhere else.

But the Twins, of course, are right, and I think they’re on the right track. It is a fun game, and it was particularly nice, on a perfectly worthless night for baseball, to get a compact, well-played reminder of that fact.

It’s the sort of thing that can get a guy going to church –or the baseball park– again on a regular basis.