MIAMI — You wait all winter to hear this sound. Like the first notes reminding you summer is heading back to town.
It’s loud, familiar and, best of all, entirely distinctive. This is the sound of a bat meeting a baseball with such speed and precision that you automatically know it will land somewhere beyond an outfielder’s reach.
This is why Kevin Kiermaier quickly leapt over the dugout wall. This is why Willy Adames was happy to follow him out. This is why Austin Meadows dropped his bat and pointed at his Rays teammates before his eighth-inning home run had even landed in the centerfield bleachers.
This is why you wait for opening day.
The Tampa Bay Rays opened their defense of the American League pennant with a 1-0 victory over the Miami Marlins on Thursday in a game that combined everything baseball devotees adore and critics detest.
You could say it was devoid of highlights, and I would say it was teeming with showdowns. You could say it was short on excitement, and I would say it was bursting with tension.
You could say it’s only the first of 162 games, and I would say, oh, heck yeah.
This was exactly the way you remembered the Rays last October. The not-an-inch-to-spare excitement of an elimination game against the Yankees that was won by a Mike Brosseau home run in the eighth. The fight-to-the-last-inning of a Game 7 win against the Astros. The craziness of a Brett Phillips walkoff hit with Kiermaier chasing him into the Texas night in Game 4 of the World Series.
“Willy’s reaction to the Bros home run still gives me chills when I see it on the Jumbotron,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Thursday’s game. “So KK popping out, Willy popping out, yeah, they’re always the first guys out. It was a good feeling.”
The Rays spent much of the spring saying 2020 was behind them, then came out on opening day and reminded us what made them so special last season. They may not look overpowering, but they play such a disciplined, diverse and enthusiastic version of baseball that you can’t help but get caught up in their energy.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Unlike last season when Tampa Bay was a chic pick to reach the World Series, the 2021 Rays are not as universally lauded. They parted ways with two of their highest-paid players — Blake Snell and Charlie Morton — and skeptics say their pitching is not the same.
In a way, this is a little more familiar to Tampa Bay. Maybe even a little more comfortable for the Rays. They have been the Little Team That Could for so long, they seem more suited to sneaking in the side entrance.
“We know how good we are, and we know that we can compete with any team in baseball, starting right now, any day of the season,” Kiermaier said. “We have the talent to compete at a very high level, and we plan on displaying that each and every day, putting on a show for our fans and all the people in the baseball world.
“We’re for real, we’re here to stay and we’re going to win a lot of ballgames.”
If the World Series is a baseball season’s culmination, then opening day is its rebirth. And for a lot of fans, this opening day took longer to arrive than any other. The 2020 season was delayed, shortened and, ultimately, played at arm’s length because of the pandemic.
The world is slowly getting back to normal, and baseball is doing its best to match that pace. Attendance at the Marlins’ park was limited to 7,062 fans Thursday, and Tropicana Field will have a similarly reduced crowd for its home opener on April 9.
Because of the way the Rays are selling tickets in socially distant blocks, there are a handful of tickets remaining for games next weekend, but team president Matt Silverman said the first three games against the Yankees are virtual sellouts at this point.
“For me, opening day gets better each year. Especially after going through everything we had last year,” Silverman said. “Fans not having as much access to the team last year made us appreciate just how special it is to do this for a living. We’re looking forward to our fans being able to enjoy baseball in person again this season.”
Some fans couldn’t wait. While tickets were limited in Miami, there were still dozens of fans in Rays gear in the corridors.
Cisco Laboy, 37, and Jerry Thornton, 37, were teammates on a Hillsborough High baseball team and, 20 years later, still try to get together for every Rays opening day. Laboy flew from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale where he was picked up by Thornton, who lives in Miami now, for a whirlwind trip with an early return planned Friday morning.
“Opening day is about tradition,” Laboy explained. “It’s a little different atmosphere than any other game because everyone is 0-0, everyone has hope, you look around and everyone is just happy that baseball is back.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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