Hope springs eternal at Shea opener

Hope springs eternal at Shea opener

NEW YORK -- The re-creation wasn't perfect, but the execution was.

With the Mets and Nationals primed to put the 2006 season in forward motion, both teams first paid witness to a blast from the past -- a highlight reel moment brought back to life, as Gary Carter and Jesse Orosco lined up at Shea Stadium to exchange Monday's ceremonial first pitch.

More than just a toss between old batterymates, Carter and Orosco provided -- minus Marty Barrett -- a replica of the pitch that ended the World Series on that very patch of real estate 20 years ago.

It was an ideal way to begin what all of baseball hopes will be a year filled with memorable moments.

"I think it's fantastic," Orosco said. "I was very excited about it. I told my wife, 'I'm not going to mess up a chance like that.' I couldn't."

Standing at the foot of the mound, Orosco raised his right leg in the air and delivered a pitch to Carter, who he found standing behind home plate -- after 11 knee surgeries, crouching might have been just too much to ask of the St. Lucie Mets' new manager, even on Opening Day.

"We're 20 years older now," Carter said. "I don't know if it could be the same."

But Carter did his best to stay faithful to history, flashing his signature smile and pumping his fists at 45 degree angles, just as he did on that cool October night in 1986.

In slightly awkward fashion, Orosco did his best to play along, but opted to forego tossing his glove toward the sky and dropping to his knees in amazement, which was perhaps a wise decision, considering what the moist infield turf might have done to Orosco's suit pants.

A sellout crowd bundled in coats and jackets celebrated all the same, somehow managing to balance their umbrellas, hot dogs and beverages while applauding.

"The fans were a part of it then, and they have never let it go," Orosco said. "It's a special thing. The Mets have done a great job honoring the 1986 team. I'm amazed by this."

With drizzle falling and the temperature dropping into the 50s by game time, the scene at Shea wasn't quite as picture-perfect as it had been 24 hours prior, when the Mets and Nationals drew about 13,000 interested observers to the ballpark for batting practice and the appeal of a sunny spring afternoon.

But it would take more than a spring chill to keep fans away from embracing the game's return. By 10 a.m. ET, a brief survey of the stadium's parking areas revealed numerous tailgate parties already underway, a rich cloud of sweet-smelling charcoal hovering above hundreds of barbecue grills, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Just a few minutes later, inside the Nationals' clubhouse, outfielder Brandon Watson -- tabbed by manager Frank Robinson to bat leadoff -- was fiddling with a brand new slim DVD videocamera, trying to perfectly balance the lens on a bed of batting gloves.

Watson has been keeping video logs of his milestone moments as his Major League career gains steam, and the crowded visiting clubhouse at Shea would soon be joining his library of highlight moments.

"I started this last year when I was called up for the first time," Watson said. "I like doing it myself. Opening Day is not something I'm going to miss."

Add in a full slate of ceremonies and celebration, with fireworks accompanying a stirring national anthem rendition by the cast of the Broadway show "Ring of Fire" and you quickly add up the reasons that thousands of fans found a way to get to Queens on this Monday afternoon.

"Just being here, you really get caught up in everyone's excitement," said Sharon McDowell of Port Monmouth, N.J. "We got here at 10:30 and the parking lot was already full. Everybody is just especially excited."

McDowell, a Mets fan for more than 40 years, admitted that Monday's game -- the Mets' 45th Opening Day and the Nationals' second under their current name -- was actually her first time being present and accounted for during Game 1 of 162.

McDowell's office job had always found excuses for keeping her away, but she said her heart was always at Shea. She even claimed to have dated paperwork, 'Mets Opening Day' in place of the game's date as a sort of silent protest.

"Every Opening Day is like hope," McDowell explains. "In spring, everything is new. Well, this is it. Hope is new every spring for the Mets."

Following a colors display by soldiers from the Fort Hamilton Joint Service Color Guard and cadets from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, who unfurled a flag in center field, Shea was buzzed by a flyover from the 110th Fighter Wing of Kings Point, N.Y.

The resulting crowd murmur escalated from that point, building a crescendo through a ceremonial flower arrangement presented to Mets manager Willie Randolph, the release of orange and blue balloons and the residual foggy vapors of a pyrotechnics display.

The clouds cleared, and it was Tom Glavine's turn to provide his own version of 'smoke', as best as the soft-tossing lefty could: the first pitch of the afternoon came in low and inside to avid videographer Watson.

Watson would eventually pop a fly ball to Carlos Beltran in center field, the first recorded play of each team's season, rolling Watson's batting average down to a not-so-perfect three zeroes.

Perhaps it wasn't a highlight reel moment to be saved, not even in Watson's own collection. But it was certainly the beginning of what could shape up to be a highlight-reel season for either club.

On Opening Day, almost anything seems possible.

Bryan Hoch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.