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Gerrit Cole’s reality did not quite measure up to Gerrit Cole’s dream. When the ace was an 11-year-old Yankees fan attending the 2001 World Series with the coolest sign in town, the fantasy of making an Opening Day start in The Bronx in front of his family was surely defined by a full house shaking the building to its core.
And by victory, of course, preferably punctuated by six or seven shutout innings and a standing O.
The reality, as it turned out, was a squandered opportunity in a 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Blue Jays, a pitch that will haunt Cole for at least a week or three, and an announced attendance of 10,850.
“One, zero, eight, five, zero,” came the announcement in the press box. “It … is … a … sellout.”
A sellout only in a pandemic-restricted world, where 20 percent capacity meets 100 percent appreciation.
It was a glorious day across the board, even if it started under a slate gray sky, in light rain, at 43 degrees, and even if it ended in defeat. Baseball was back and, of greater consequence, its fans were back too. Masked human beings replaced maskless cardboard cutouts. Those cheers you heard weren’t delivered artificially, but produced by real-live voice boxes, including those belonging to Gerrit Cole’s parents, sister, wife, son and mother-in-law.
“Just to feel the energy of the people in the park, it’s welcome,” Cole would say. “My family being here, certainly after not being able to see me much last year, means a lot.”
No, Cole didn’t get this kind of Opening Day in 2020, a surreal 60-game season that didn’t make room for many childhood dreams. He had said during spring training that his father, Mark, might just plant himself outside Yankee Stadium listening to Yanks-Blue Jays on the radio if the damn pandemic shut him out. But Mark Cole and family were allowed into the park this time, and they sure as hell watched Gerrit let it rip for 5 ¹/₃ innings, 97 pitches in all.
The Mets’ nighttime opener in D.C. had gotten canceled in the morning, so all of New York was locked in on the $324 million ace, knowing this was the only baseball to be had for the day. Cole needed just a dozen pitches for a 1-2-3 first, and might have escaped the second inning unscathed had Gleyber Torres made yet another play to his right that he should have made. Cole was rattled enough by surrendering an early run that he started walking off the mound after striking out Randal Grichuk — the second out of the inning.
But after his old friend, Gary Sanchez, immediately handed him a 2-1 lead on a homer, Cole was whole again. He carried that lead into the sixth, after the skies had turned blue and the sun had emerged, and started the inning by striking out Bo Bichette.
Cole had eight strikeouts at that point, one off the franchise’s Opening Day record, and four Jays had gone down looking. Yet after victimizing Teoscar Hernandez in the fourth, the ace tried to beat him again with the same pitch. On contact, Cole recoiled, lifted his right leg and slammed his right hand into his glove. That ball is still sailing over some high-rise in The Bronx.
“I just want that slider back,” Cole said with more than a trace of exasperation.
He walked Vladimir Guerrero Jr., because he couldn’t get him out all day, because Guerrero had ripped a laser right over his head in the second. Cole walked off to notably loud applause, given the crowd size, and accepted a few pats on the back and a fist bump in the dugout before slamming his glove one, two, three, four times into the bench.
“I just wanted to finish a little better,” Cole said, “and obviously to have held the lead there.”
He recovered quickly enough, while on the dugout rail, to point at Chad Green the way an alley-oop dunker points to his passer after Green got the double-play ball required to keep it 2-2. At that point, the game felt like a million others in this Stadium and in the old place that turned into tense, battle-of-the-bullpen standoffs that were won by the home team in the ninth. It seemed like the Yankees were going to take the first game of their 119th season … until it didn’t.
“It shaped up to be a pretty pleasant day for the most part,” Cole said, “outside of the loss.”
It was a treat to be on site, to see the fans dressed in Cole and Aaron Judge jerseys, to see one paying customer behind the plate, in the second deck, dressed in a Lou Gehrig jersey. It was a treat to see Cole, that grown-up kid with the “Yankee Fan Today, Tomorrow, Forever” sign at the 2001 World Series, pitch for his boyhood team in front of his old man.
But in the end, reality always trumps fantasy. Gerrit Cole had a dream day. He just didn’t get a dream ending.
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