Opening Day Gives Yankees Plenty of Reason to Dream
Admission to a ballgame comes with no promises, which is part of the allure. No reviews to consider, no spoilers to avoid. Bring your hopes and expectations and see if they match with reality.
When they do, you get a sublime afternoon like Thursday at Yankee Stadium, when everything unfolds just right — not a cloud in the sky or a blemish in the box score. The best hitter homers on his first swing of the season. The best pitcher sets a team record for opening day strikeouts. The rookie shortstop steals a base, turns a double play and radiates joy in his major league debut.
There was little tension in the Yankees’ 5-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants, which was just as well. Save the drama for October. Opening day is for dreamers. The perfect season, theoretically, is still possible.
“Look around and embrace what today means: the start of that pursuit of a championship,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said Thursday morning. “Every team walks into the season with that hopeful feeling.”
For the Yankees, nothing embodies hope better than Aaron Judge launching a ball over the center field fence in his first regular-season at-bat as team captain.
What to Know About M.L.B.’s New Rules
All about action. Major League Baseball is implementing some of the biggest changes in the sport’s history in an effort to speed up the game and inject more activity. Here’s a look at some of the new rules taking effect this season:
Pitch clock. The biggest change is the creation of a pitch clock. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to begin their motion with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on. If they don’t, they will be assessed a ball. Batters not in the box by the eight-second mark will receive a strike.
More pace-of-play changes. A pitcher is limited to two disengagements, such as a pickoff attempt or step-off, per plate appearance. A third will result in a balk. There will be a 30-second clock between batters and a 2-minute-15-second inning break during regular-season games.
Defensive shift ban. All four infielders must have both feet on the infield dirt or grass when the pitcher begins his motion, and each team must have two infielders on each side of second base. A violation results in a ball, or the batting team can let the play stand.
Bigger bases. With the goal of decreasing collisions at first base and stimulating more infield hits and stolen bases, all three bases were increased to 18 inches square from 15. That will reduce the distance between first and second base, and second and third, by 4.5 inches.
Why make these changes? Baseball has been criticized for having long games without enough action. In 2021, an average game set a record at 3 hours 11 minutes — the average was 2 hours 44 minutes in 1985. Hits per game were near historic lows while strikeouts were higher than ever.
Will the new rules work? M.L.B. found that the use of a pitch clock in the minors shortened the average game by 25 minutes. Overall, the league saw a slight increase in batting average, a larger one in stolen base attempts, a notable decrease in injuries and a smaller decrease in strikeouts.
Judge, of course, got the captaincy when he returned to the Yankees for nine years and $360 million, turning down his hometown Giants in free agency. Facing San Francisco’s ace, the ground ball specialist Logan Webb, in the bottom of the first, Judge took a strike and then blasted a knee-high sinker 422 feet into Monument Park.
“I was really just trying to elevate a pitch and get it in the air,” Judge said. “I didn’t expect that to happen.”
Boone was incredulous. “Really?” he asked Judge in the dugout, and Judge just smiled. He hit 62 homers last season to set a new American League record. This is what he does.
Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ starter, did what he does, too. Cole broke Ron Guidry’s single-season team strikeout mark last year — 257, the most in the majors — and on Thursday he surpassed a lesser-known pitcher’s record: most strikeouts on opening day, with 11.
“Who held it?” Cole asked later, knowing that the answer was Tim Leary, with nine in 1991. “A Bruin!”
Cole attended U.C.L.A. instead of signing with the Yankees, his favorite team, who made him their first-round draft pick out of a California high school in 2008. Eleven years later, the Yankees chose another fan in the first round, but this time they signed him: Anthony Volpe, who turned down Vanderbilt to join the team he loved as a boy.
Volpe grew up in Manhattan and, later, in Watchung, N.J., a lifelong Yankees fan who squeezed his way through the crowd for a close-up view of the team’s 2009 championship parade, when he was 8 years old. He earned the shortstop job this month with a torrid spring training, and was ready for his first-inning salute from the fans in the right field bleachers.
“I started ragging him a little bit, I was like, ‘Man, I know you’re a big Yankee fan, but you’ve gotta have something special for those Bleacher Creatures out there — you’re the shortstop for the New York Yankees,’” Judge said. “He was throwing out a couple of ideas so I didn’t know which one he was going with. I think the fans got a pretty good roar out of that one.”
Volpe settled on a move he saw from Judge on TV last fall, in the playoffs, when Judge kissed the logo on his jersey. When the fans chanted his name on Thursday, Volpe did the same, then raised his glove to right field.
In his first plate appearance, he gave the fans reason to cheer. However eager he must have been, Volpe took a disciplined approach against Webb, looking for one specific pitch and resisting everything else.
“I was trying to, not keyhole him, but I knew where I wanted the pitch to start,” Volpe said. “So when I didn’t see it there, I tried to take ’em. All those pitches on the corner, I’m going to at least try to give to the pitcher.”
Volpe drew a walk with a full count and then stole second, sliding safely into the new, pizza-box-sized bases for 2023. He later started a double play to help Cole through the sixth inning, and beamed all through his postgame news conference — with his parents watching from the front row.
“It was probably the most fun day of my entire life,” said Volpe, who turns 22 in April. “The whole pregame festivities, I probably had goose bumps the whole day.”
Volpe wore No. 77 in spring training but switched to No. 11 after he made the team, even calling the last player who wore it, the longtime outfielder Brett Gardner, for his endorsement. Gardner was a rookie for the 2009 champions and spent 14 years in pinstripes.
“His impact on the clubhouse, to this day, is gi-normous,” Volpe said.
Volpe grounded to third in the fifth inning and struck out in the seventh. His first hit will come later. For now, it was enough to be an official major leaguer, an undefeated Yankee, teammates with Judge, Cole and the rest, a microcosm of opening day itself: Everything is new, and anything is possible.
“It brings you back to a fond moment of when your career starts, and that has just a little bit of an infectious energy,” Cole said. “I mean, it’s hard not to bring a smile to anybody’s face.”