The magic of Opening Day is never far from the imagination. But seldom is it so close to reality as on April 4, when the revitalized Reds gave their fans one of the happiest days in years.
The day, of course, is always about Cincinnati and its special place in the game, even if it's about that only here. The parade, the kids skipping school, the adults missing work and the first pitch of a new year — every Opening Day is about being born again.
Until the bottom of the ninth inning, though, the game was about the New York Mets being born again to upper status in the big leagues through the high-profile free agent signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.
During the offseason, the Reds bid to be only a good, solid ball club that might put it all together, sneak into the playoffs, throw the dice and maybe win something. The Reds played the offseason for a chance at the playoffs, while the Mets played the offseason for the back pages of the New York tabloids, hoping, of course, to keep them filled through October.
Which isn't to say Mets General Manager Omar Minaya did anything wrong. How can signing Martinez and Beltran be wrong? In New York, they're the right kinds of players to sign.
For the Reds, the right kind of guy to sign is Joe Randa, who isn't even going to make headlines in Cincinnati. At least not until he homers in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day, ending the Cincinnati tradition with a walk-off bomb for the first time in its 129-year history.
A 7-6 win to begins the season with at least a little promise. Randa is permanently etched in local baseball lore. But it is, remember, still early.
For one day, at least, the Reds' approach equalled and in cases exceeded the New York approach. Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien is the stylistic equivalent of former GM Bob Quinn, who preached about building a ball club by inches rather than miles as he put together Cincinnati's wire-to-wire champion in 1990.
O'Brien built by inches this winter. Outside the signing of Eric Milton, which suddenly gave the club enormous credibility with itself, if no one else, O'Brien went at it the old-fashioned way.
The Reds can develop star players, but they can't sign them from other clubs. They can, however, use the free agent market to address weaknesses. They can find, at very reasonable prices, players who won't hurt them. A club with limited resources can't spend its way to 100 wins in a year, but it can spend away its weaknesses and win its share against clubs that spend to the heavens and leave their ground exposed.
For the Mets, Martinez turned in a terrific performance. It's said the only time to nail the great pitchers is early, while they're trying to find the tempo and location of the fastball. In the first inning, Martinez was no match for Adam Dunn, a homegrown star who smashed a three-run homer to right field.
From that point, Martinez pitched like he might be worth $13.25 million this year, striking out 12 of the last 14 batters he faced. The Reds simply couldn't touch him. A couple months into the season, Martinez will finish that game and the Reds will just tip their caps to him.
On Opening Day, though, it's early, which means Martinez wasn't going all the way. He left with a 6-3 lead as the Reds came to bat in the seventh.
The Reds' Opening Day starter, Paul Wilson, was a bit less of a glamorous acquisition, a once-great prospect whose arm problems robbed him of his youth, a guy just trying to hang onto a faltering career when the Reds signed him before the 2003 season.
After two seasons with the Reds, Wilson totaled a 19-16 record and still led the club in wins both years. The Reds re-signed him this year for two seasons at a total of $8.2 million, a little more than half the amount Martinez will earn this year alone.
Wilson once was going to be a New York baseball hero. The Mets made him the first player taken in the 1994 draft. When Wilson came up in 1996, he, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher were hyped as the Mets' exciting "Generation K" pitching core. Like so many phenoms who started in New York, all three have struggled with failing fortunes.
Of the three, Isringhausen has maintained the most successful career, but not until Oakland turned him into a reliever in 2000. He led the National League in saves last year with 47. Pulsipher hit bottom in 2003 when he took a ground crew job at the Mets spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He pitched last year for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League and broke camp this year with the Cardinals as a reliever.
Of the three, Wilson has taken something of a middle road, making not a single big league appearance between 1996 and 2000 before coming along in Cincinnati as the best starter in a bad rotation. But he's a good pitcher. We all know that 19-16 is deceptive. He would have topped 15 wins last year if a weak bullpen didn't blow so many leads.
Wilson didn't even approximately match Martinez' great performance pitch by pitch. But he matched Martinez out for out, and that's what the game is about. Through six innings, each gave up three earned runs.
From there, the game went to the bullpens, neither of which was very good. David Weathers and Kent Mercker, veterans expected to make the Reds less vulnerable in the seventh inning, combined to give up three runs in the seventh on Opening Day. It happens. But it didn't cost the Reds a game because their back two relievers, Ryan Wagner and Danny Graves, were terrific.
The Reds trailed 6-4 going to the ninth when they brought in Graves, apparently in a mop-up role just to get his feet on the ground. He ground up the meat of the New York order — Beltran flied out, Mike Piazza grounded out and Cliff Floyd flied out. Usually, Graves will pitch only in save situations. But that performance helped turn Monday into a win situation.
And, as we've seen a lot during the short Great American Ball Park era, big bats can make it happen late for the Reds. They turned it around Monday in a matter of 14 pitches and no outs. Austin Kearns, whose return could be the most important difference for the Reds this year, started it with a single before Dunn tied the game with a homer to right. And then, Reds fans happy enough just to have tied the game went home even more happily with Randa's homer to left against Braden Looper.
In the little ways, the Reds did what they needed to do Monday. The Mets out-hit the Reds 14-8, and the New York pitchers roared to a 16-3 advantage in strikeouts. But Reds pitchers walked only two hitters, Reds hitters left only two runners on base and Reds fielders made no errors.
That's the kind of play that will characterize the Reds if they're a winning club this year. Names make headlines, but plays make wins. Play ball!