Dear Baseball: Really wonderful to see you again. We missed you so.
And thank you, baseball, for coming back at full force on Monday with a packed-to-the-brim, round-the-clock Opening Day of star performances and thrilling displays of athleticism.
Thank you, baseball, for being worthy of all the pomp and circumstance that preceded each of the 13 Opening Day contests around the country, from President Obama's ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park to Andrew Bailey receiving his 2009 American League Rookie of the Year Award at the Oakland Coliseum.
Dear Baseball: What else could you have given us Opening Day? Seriously.
Sir Albert Pujols goes deep twice, and with vigor, to lead the Cardinals to an 11-6 victory in Cincinnati, marking his second two-homer opener in five years and showing that he's primed for another run at the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
Roy Halladay shakes off a first-inning run for a strong seven-inning debut with the Phillies in an 11-1 win for the defending NL champs, getting them off to a good start toward what would be a historic NL three-peat.
And even with all that well-established star power, it's hard to top Jason Heyward's spectacular first at-bat in the Majors: a three-run homer that sent Turner Field into an absolute tizzy, including his parents in the stands cheering their hometown kid, before Atlanta rolled on for a 16-5 win.
For a 20-year-old performing in his first Opening Day in the Majors, it was a lot to handle before he even stepped to the plate. There was receiving the ceremonial first pitch in what might amount to a pass-the-torch ceremony from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, and watching legendary manager Bobby Cox trot out to the foul line for the last time, doffing his cap in his farewell season.
And then there was Heyward himself, crushing a Carlos Zambrano fastball into the bullpen in right-center field on the third pitch he'd seen in the big leagues.
Bedlam in Atlanta.
"I felt my legs, but I couldn't hear myself think," Heyward said afterward, still smiling through the celebratory shaving-cream treatment he received from his teammates. "It was so loud. You just hear 'Rahhhh' and that was cool."
Turns out, a lot of that roar came from the 60 seats his family and friends bought for this grand opening.
"We were being mobbed by each other," recalled his father, Eugene Heyward. "We were knocking each other's hats and glasses off. We just saw the ball go out, and after that we just erupted. It was unbelievable."
That's Opening Day for you. Now just wait for what the next 161 games have to offer -- and in Heyward's case, perhaps the next 20 years or so.
Heyward's smashing debut was merely the peak in a mountain range of an Opening Day, with a no-hitter scare turning into a walk-off in Texas; one of the most amazing defensive plays that will be made this year, from Chicago's Mark Buehrle; and a host of highlights that remind us that, as special as all of it was, baseball does these kinds of things every single day.
And it happens all around the country, from coast to coast, just like it did on Monday.
In Cincinnati, there was center fielder Colby Rasmus grabbing one off the top of the fence with his glove and knocking one over with his bat, helping Pujols and ace starter Chris Carpenter beat the Reds.
In Phoenix, there was the D-backs' Stephen Drew taking all four bases with an inside-the-park homer that helped Arizona to a 6-3 defeat of San Diego, backing up a dominating start by Dan Haren.
In Anaheim, there was World Series MVP Hideki Matsui and new teammate Kendry Morales going back-to-back in the eighth inning with two of three Opening Night homers for the defending AL West champion Halos in a 6-3 win over the defending AL Central champion Twins.
In Washington, there was Placido Polanco making huge noise in his first game back with the Phillies, driving in six runs and hitting a grand slam, giving Halladay and Ryan Howard, who also homered, some support.
In Pittsburgh, there was Garrett Jones homering in each of his first two at-bats in his first Opening Day, showing that the promise of his 2009 performance is ready to be realized in 2010 and thrilling the sellout crowd at PNC Park along the way, leading the Pirates to an 11-5 win over the Dodgers.
"I couldn't have dreamed it any better," said Jones.
That's Opening Day for you. It really is the stuff of dreams. But a lot of what happened can happen any old day in baseball -- Jones will have another two-homer game, and Polanco will crank out another big day at the plate for the Phillies.
Then again, there's stuff that only happens on Opening Day. For example, this one brought the eighth Opening Day start for three All-Star starters -- Halladay, Buehrle and Roy Oswalt of Houston -- matching Livan Hernandez for the most among active pitchers. For Buehrle and Oswalt, it was more of the same, but for Halladay it was the beginning of a new era with the Phillies after spending his whole career with the Blue Jays.
"Strangely, I felt very comfortable," Halladay said after his seven-inning victory. "I felt very normal."
Normal to Halladay means dominating, and after allowing that first-inning run, he was just that. It couldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.
What Buehrle did in his eighth Opening Day start, well, nobody could have predicted.
The seven shutout innings? Predictable for the Windy City's Mr. No-Hitter. Kicking a comebacker, racing across the first-base line in front of the runner and hiking the ball with his glove between his legs to the bare hand of first baseman Paul Konerko for the out? Not so predictable.
"When stuff like that happens, it surprises me, just like it did 40,000 people here today," Buehrle said. "It's one of those when you are running over, you see a play happening, you are saying, 'Do I slide and spin or grab the ball and throw it?' Every thought went through my head but that one."
Oswalt's eighth start didn't work out as well as the others', but his mound opponent had something to do with that. Tim Lincecum has two Cy Young seasons behind him, and he might have started a third with seven shutout innings in a 5-2 Giants win at Minute Maid Park.
That's Opening Day for you. Aces get aced out. That's the kind of thing that happened all day long, and happens all season long.
In Kansas City, both aces got aced out, as a duel of AL Cy Young candidates Zack Greinke of the Royals and Justin Verlander of the Tigers went pretty much as one would expect, with a tight game going into the late innings, before Detroit got to the K.C. bullpen for an 8-4 win.
In Oakland, ace Felix Hernandez gave the Mariners all they needed with 6 2/3 stellar frames, but the A's tied it up after he left, only to hand it back to the Mariners on a two-run single by Casey Kotchman off Bailey in the ninth for a 5-3 Seattle victory.
In Milwaukee, the leadoff hitter with the most appropriate nickname in baseball for his spot -- CarGo -- got the Rockies going, as Carlos Gonzalez put together a four-hit day and Ian Stewart homered to make a 5-3 winner out of Ubaldo Jimenez and the Rockies over Yovani Gallardo and the Brewers.
In Arlington, the Rangers' vaunted offense was powerless -- and hitless -- against Blue Jays starter Shaun Marcum into the seventh inning. But Nelson Cruz not only whacked a three-run homer to tie the score that inning, Texas came back to tie it in the ninth, setting up Jarrod Saltalamacchia's game-winning single for a 5-4 walk-off victory.
In New York, David Wright homered in his first at-bat after going deep for just 10 last year. The Marlins could not break through against Johan Santana, and the Mets made this Citi Field opener a 7-1 winner.
"This is the type of ballclub we have to be, day in and day out," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said.
And there's the point of Opening Day: For all the excitement that it brings, it really is just the start of something special.
In that sense, this was just the first big day in the life of the 2010 baseball season. Sir Albert, Doc, J-Hey and all the rest of the sport's stars will have other days like this when there isn't bunting on the rails and a military flyover.
On Tuesday there will be one final opener -- Orioles at Rays -- and the teams that started it all on Sunday night, the Yankees and Red Sox, will be back at it again, as the 2,430 games scheduled for the 2010 championship season continue.
Opening Day, for all its glory, is just the beginning of something even bigger. More than anything else, it means baseball is back for another long haul.
Dear Baseball: See you tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.