A beautiful day for a beautiful game

A beautiful day for a beautiful game

On the same day that NASA revealed its plan to slam unmanned spacecraft into the moon's South Pole in hopes of discovering hidden ice in craters, Troy Tulowitzki slammed the year's first homer on MLB.TV, Rockies teammate Matt Holliday slammed a baseball high off the batter's-eye wall in center field, and Greg Dobbs slammed a three-run homer in a seven-run inning for the Phillies.

On the same day that presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama tangled publicly over al-Qaida in Iraq, Josh Hamilton drove in two runs for his new Texas club with an opposite-field double and Wilkin Ramirez gave Detroit a victory over the Mets with what a broadcaster on MLB.com's Gameday Audio called "this little worm burner that killed about 30 worms getting to the outfield."

While life went on pretty much as usual around the world on Wednesday, something wonderful happened that countless baseball fans noticed -- the first games of the year were played between Major League clubs. They were marked by pitching performances lasting up to three innings max, lots of substitutions and lots of players who wore high uniform numbers, but baseball was back -- and that is all that mattered.

There were three strikes and four balls per at-bat, three outs per half-inning, 90 feet between the bases, 60 feet and six inches between the pitching rubber and the front of home plate. There was an umpire behind a catcher next to a batter who was trying to do the hardest thing to do in professional sport, and that is to hit a pitched baseball at 90-plus mph.

Is there anything more beautiful than the first sight of a baseball game?

Maybe seeing the birth of a child or the face of your lover. Maybe hearing the crash of cymbals against the mellifluous pull of a violin's bow. Maybe seeing the wonders of the world for the first time, of enemies becoming friends, of scientists discovering cures thought impossible. There are some really beautiful things about being alive, but you have to admit that one of them, truly, is the return of your game.

"This is my favorite day of the year," said Rangers owner Tom Hicks, enjoying his club's 6-1 victory over Kansas City in the exhibition opener. "I'm really excited about seeing certain people. Obviously, we ought to have a pretty good infield, we should really be good, and we remade the outfield. Like anything else, it will come down to pitching. But I like what I see this year and next year and the year after."

That's what it's all about right now. Opening Day might be the best day of the year for some people, but the start of exhibition games has a place of its own as well. It felt as though life was happening before your eyes on Wednesday. Like Hicks, you probably were watching and listening, too. And you probably were excited about what you saw.

It was a beautiful day, as beautiful as hearing the first "Star-Spangled Banner" of the year on MLB.TV, as beautiful as the mountains in the distance beyond the wall at the White Sox Cactus League home in Tucson, Ariz. How beautiful it was to again see Dusty Baker making lineup moves and managing a club again, even if his Reds were on the wrong end of an 8-1 opener against the defending National League East champion Phillies. How beautiful it was to see freshly manicured ballfields, blue skies and players in spotless uniforms that were occasionally soiled.

Do you love this game or what? You reminded yourself of that one nondescript moment when Brad Hawpe fouled off a fastball far into the stands along the third-base side, just gaping at the sweetness of the swing itself and marveling at how men who have honed the best talent in the sport can just go out there for the first time and act as though they were just doing it yesterday, without any sort of offseason.

That's basically what one fan wrote in an e-mail that was read over the air on MLB.com Gameday Audio during the Royals-Rangers afternoon game in Surprise, Ariz. "Great to hear baseball again," is what the play-by-play man read.

That fan was listening live over his computer. Many fans began subscribing to MLB.TV or MLB.TV Premium, for a monthly or an annual fee, and it was their first chance to actually experience it. The Rockies-White Sox game was exclusive to MLB.TV -- the only way anyone could see it other than being at the ballpark itself.

And here's the good news: That was just a start. If you have re-acquainted yourself with the master-schedule page on MLB.com, then you know that there are 13 exhibition games between Major League clubs on Thursday. Five exhibition openers were played on Wednesday, not counting the three games in which Major Leaguers beat college guys by a collective 28-2 score. It was a day to remind yourself that Major Leaguers are better than college guys, and that baseball is good.

Early in the day, a fan setting in for a whole day on the computer realized that the Mets didn't bring their big guns to Lakeland to face the Tigers. But it didn't matter. There was a baseball game to listen to on MLB.com Gameday Audio. Listeners heard that the Tigers were held to just one hit over the first six innings, but then Mike Hessman tripled and Marcus Thames doubled to cut the Mets' lead to 2-1.

Then Ramon Santiago walked, and Dane Sardinha came up and popped a blooper to left that new Mets outfielder Brady Clark misplayed.

"That's Spring Training," said the WXYT-AM broadcaster on MLB.com Gameday Audio.

So is buzz about prospects, and Wilkin Ramirez, so often the subject of such buzz about his talent, hit what the play-by-play man called a "seeing-eye single through the right side" to give Detroit two more runs on its way to a 4-2 victory.

"You look in the dictionary for seeing-eye base hit, and that's it," the broadcaster said. "This little worm burner that killed about 30 worms getting to the outfield, agonizingly out of reach of [Mets second baseman Ruben] Gotay, reaches the outfield, drives in two."

When informed about the worm-burning discussion, Jason Beck, MLB.com's veteran Tigers beat writer, clarified via IM from the Lakeland press box that Ramirez "put the ground in ground ball."

We were all trying to get back into the swing of things here after a long winter, trying to describe what we were actually seeing and hearing again.

In Surprise, Ariz., bagpipe players come onto the infield and a woman sang the first "Star-Spangled Banner" of the year before a televised game between two Major League Baseball teams. There will be thousands of national anthems to follow, and in October, there will be press releases announcing the identities of the singers. Remember Carrie Underwood's rendition before the first Rockies World Series game last October in Denver? It's something baseball made into a tradition that is now widely practiced by other sports, and even seeing that first one on MLB.TV was a treat.

Almost right after that pleasant performance of the national anthem, Tulowitzki did what he and his teammates did so often last season. He muscled a pitch from John Danks into the wind blowing out toward left, and it kept going and finished well beyond the fence for a quick 1-0 Colorado lead -- on the way to a 7-3 triumph.

First homer of the year on MLB.TV. It was something to salute, something to acknowledge, a moment to savor. If you are a White Sox fan, what you were thinking was that, other than that pitch, Danks, coming off a 6-13 season, looked pretty good over two innings. There are always two sides.

Not long after that, Holliday absolutely scorched a pitch from Bobby Jenks that banged high off the green batter's-eye wall in center for a double. It seemed like 550 feet, Mickey Mantle stuff, but it was only the first day of games, and everything seemed more impressive than it probably really was. Still, you had to get all excited -- someone measure that one!

It was great to see the White Sox players wearing "NIU" on their caps. It was done to honor those lost and the families who lost loved ones last week at Northern Illinois University, scene of those multiple shooting fatalities.

Not everything went according to plan on the first day of games. Gary Majewski's ERA is exactly the same as the number of games in the regular season. He pitched a third of an inning for Cincinnati and allowed the Phillies six hits and six runs (all earned), for a quick 162.00 ERA. This, after a headline on the Reds' site saying that he has made a great early impression in camp. Hey, it's Spring Training.

If you're a Phillies fan who can't wait to see if this team can get back into the postseason and farther than last October, apart from that one huge offensive inning, you mostly had to like that Jamie Moyer and Travis Blackley opened everything with back-to-back combinations of three scoreless and walkless innings. It's Moyer's 22nd season. He can do this stuff blindfolded now; had he allowed eight runs, he probably would not have cared any more than allowing none.

Top of the fourth, Kansas City at Texas: "A gorgeous February afternoon here in Surprise, Arizona," said the MLB.com Gameday broadcaster. "About 81 degrees."

His words almost immediately followed his announcement that Alex Gordon had just slapped "the first Royals hit in 2008 in the Cactus League."

In the fifth inning, words that are music to a Texas fan: "It's an RBI double for Josh Hamilton, using all fields, for a couple of RBIs. He's got what looks like effortless power up there."

That one gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth.

People were talking baseball on Wednesday. Just listen to Mets manager Willie Randolph talking about Mike Pelfrey, who pitched the first two innings against Detroit, facing six batters and throwing 27 pitches, 18 for strikes: "He pounded the bottom of the strike zone, which is what we want from him. But he also elevated some pitches, and his pitches move so much, he can get away with that when he goes up."

There's no stopping us now. There will be even more games on Thursday, and then it will get louder and louder and more intense until finally there is an Opening Day and a 162-game season and unbelievable pennant races and an October to remember.

Life goes on elsewhere, but life just got a lot better, too.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Marty Noble and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.