NEW YORK -- Some say that baseball is a dying game, that it's too slow and doesn't grab kids the way it used to.
Maybe there's some truth to that, though there was an awful lot of proof to the contrary Monday when the season opened to packed stands in 10 cities across the country. Families with toddlers and teens, businessmen taking a day off from work, kids skipping school.
At Shea Stadium, the 53,734 New York Mets fans stood in lines wrapped around the old blue ballpark, waiting to pass through metal detectors. Not many complained when they couldn't get in for the first pitch against Pittsburgh. The sun was out and the sound of baseball was close enough to feel.
A knot of fans who weren't lucky enough to own tickets watched the game from the train platform behind the gap in center field.
Baseball still hooks millions of Americans, even if polls say it ranks behind football and basketball in popularity. For the avid baseball fan, life between October and April is a bleak season of waiting for the first pitch.
At 79, Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner still gets a thrill out of opening day as if it were the first day of school. The feelings of anticipation and renewal, the smell of fresh paint, the red, white and blue bunting and sellout crowds, the high school marching bands, some politician or old-timer throwing out the first pitch. Does it ever get old?
''Not to me it doesn't,'' Kiner said before taking his place in the broadcast booth to start his 41st season as the Mets' announcer.
''It doesn't get old because it's a springboard for what's going to happen to you throughout the year. Everything is wiped clean and you start all over again. You have a chance to do better than you did before, and you might do worse. You don't know what's going to happen, whether you're going to have a great year or whether you're going to get hurt. The main thing is, you really can't wait to get going.''
Kiner couldn't wait to get going as a 23-year-old rookie fresh out of the Navy after World War II. He had a tremendous spring training with at least a dozen home runs and he opened with the Pirates in St. Louis. He remembers it vividly, going 1-for-4 with a base hit down the left field line off Johnny Beasley.
''You never forget your first hit in the major leagues,'' he said. ''It was in my third at bat. That was kind of a relief. You could start off 0-for-34.''
Kiner led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons, all with Pittsburgh, and played 10 seasons before retiring when sciatica made it too painful to continue. He served as general manager of the minor league San Diego Padres before switching to broadcasting, first with the Chicago White Sox and then with the Mets in their inaugural season in 1962.
The only opening day he missed in all those years was in 2000, when the Mets opened in Japan against the Chicago Cubs. But he was there for the home opener at Shea Stadium.
''I recall one year in the late '40s in Cincinnati opening up with the snow falling on the ground and Ewell Blackwell pitching and the temperature was about 30 degrees,'' Kiner said. ''That is nothing you remember pleasantly. Ewell Blackwell was the toughest right-handed pitcher I ever hit against. He could throw hard, and with the snow on the ground and the weather that cold, it was a tough game.''
Artist LeRoy Neiman was also at Shea, trying to capture the moment on his sketchbook. There were the gentle scenes of acquaintances renewed, fans greeting each other at the start of a new season, handshakes all around. There was Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, a descendant of Abner, going around patting employees on the back.
''How ya doing, Tony,'' he said to the elevator operator. ''Did you have a good winter?''
Tony said he couldn't wait for the season to begin.
''Everybody's a kid on opening day,'' said Mo Vaughn, coming back from a torn biceps muscle and playing his first game since Oct. 1, 2000. ''This one is special for me.''
It was no less special after he went 0-for-5 in the Mets' 6-2 victory over Pittsburgh.
Opening day is as much about looking back as it is about looking ahead.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine laughed about his most memorable opening day.
''We had 30 streakers,'' Valentine said, recalling a game in Chicago in the mid-70s. Then he added with a wink, ''and most of them ran by me. That was memorable.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.