Remembering 'The Opener'
The Cleveland sports fan torment meter tilts to eleven with the recollection of certain painful scars: the Game 7 Marlins 9th inning World Series debacle, The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot, Red-Right '88 and, of course, The Decision. While not registering the same angst magnitude of those landmark failures, the 2012 Indians home opener earned a place in the egregious lore of Cleveland sports tragedies.
The Indians-Blue Jays opener was the longest of 1,360 Opening Day games played since 1901. The crushing loss of that landmark opener served up some distinctively painful twists of fate that foreshadowed the events of a doomed 2012 season.
The Indians Home Opener generates a unique euphoria – a Christmas Eve-type anticipation – and on April 5, 2012, my 15-year-old son Cal and his friends Loren, Patrick and Cole were geared up for a fun afternoon. The healthy return of Choo and Kipnis, and Casey Kotchman’s gold glove installed at first base provided reason for optimism for the 2012 Indians.
The pre-game ceremonies provided a truly powerful patriotic tribute. A massive American flag was unfurled across the field, two military helicopters rocketed overhead, and then an active duty marine sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” live via satellite from Afghanistan, igniting a crescendo of emotion as the entire stadium anticipated Justin Masterson’s first pitch.
Then Masterson harnessed the energy and blew the place up. In a breathtaking first half inning of the season Masterson whiffed the first two Blue Jays, and then – with the crowd in a frenzy – the third batter, slugger Jose Bautista, as well. Wow! Other than a solo homer to Bautista, Masterson masterfully dominated the game. He struck out 10 and brought the Tribe to the 9th inning ahead 4-1 and at the precipice of victory. Masterson would surely deliver the final 3 outs.
But then the unthinkable happened. Closer Chris Perez replaced Masterson. But wasn’t Chris Perez still rusty from a spring training injury? An uneasy murmur swept over knowing Cleveland fans. After back-to-back singles by the Jays, the murmur transformed to panicked groans of inevitability. In a momentary blur the Jays had rallied to tie it in the ninth 4-all.
But all seemed destined to end well in the home-half of the ninth as the Tribe got the potential winning run to third base with one out. Casey Kotchman strode to the plate and stared down the Jays pitcher. The thought crossed my mind – it's actually cool that Chris Perez didn’t lock down the save, winning in the bottom of the ninth is even better. A simple bloop single by the Indians' big free agent acquisition could erase the epic failure of the infamous “Casey at the Bat” legend and clinch opening day glory for the Tribe and mighty Casey. Unfortunately, Kotchman dribbled a grounder to first and then Jason Kipnis made the final out to retire the side.
Thereafter, the innings piled up as we implemented a continuous exhibition of shouting, chanting and seat jumping to ward off frostbite and urge on the Tribe. Following the 14th inning stretch, I asked the kids with frigid desperation in my voice: “What do you guys want to do? Stay or..." and before I uttered the word “leave,” Patrick steadfastly proclaimed, “We’re not leaving no matter what!”
Cleveland sports fate would never allow a miracle ending however, and bitter defeat inevitably ensued in the 16th. “The Opener” turned out to be a microcosm of the season. The Indians burst out to the front of the division the first 2 months of the season, but just like The Opener's ninth-inning lead, it didn’t last. The offense and starting pitching collapsed, and long losing streaks spiraled towards a truly hideous season finale.
On a beautiful October evening we decided to head back to the stadium for the final home game of the season and watch Travis Hafner’s last game as an Indian. Stub Hub provided seats for 75 cents and we hoped Travis might provide heroics like he had the night before with a pinch-hit, 12th-inning game-winning homer. I guess you get what you pay for… the season ended with a putrid 9-0 defeat.
After making a family trip to Arizona this year for Spring Training, the disappointment of last year's Opener and the 2012 season has faded. The approaching 2013 Season Opener against the "evil empire" promises exciting roster additions, a new manager and cheaper hot dogs. Maybe this will be the year for the Indians. The Opening Day siren call beckons to all Tribe fans. We can hardly wait!!
Westlake resident since 1998, married, 2 kids who attend westkake schools, work at Rainbow as pediatrician