Jack Curry: The magic of Opening Day takes on new meaning this year

Yankee Stadium is set to welcome fans back, at a limited capacity, for the start of the 2021 season.|Art or Photo Credit: AP

When I hear the magical words “Opening Day,” my mood becomes more joyful, my spirit is rejuvenated and my excitement increases. There are other wonderful two-word phrases in sports like World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four and, of course, those are amazing because they signify an imminent championship, but Opening Day has its own special place and its own special significance. It’s about hope.

When the Yankees begin their season against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Thursday afternoon, weather permitting, there will be fans in the Bronx to watch baseball for the first time in 18 months. Those fans will be tangible proof that the emptiness, that depressing emptiness, is finally starting to fade. Seeing and hearing those 10,850 people will be another reason to be enthused, another reason to hope.

And we all need to hope. More than half a million lives have been lost in the United States during the pandemic and we ache for the thousands of families who have been devastated by the insidious coronavirus. As we try to navigate through these scary and surreal times by being safe and smart, we can also turn to an old friend to be a welcome distraction. Every day, baseball can be our companion. This season will be different because of the necessary COVID-19 protocols, but the games will also be so welcomed.

The beauty of baseball, even the baseball that is sometimes a three-outcome event of walks, strikeouts and home runs, is that it is in our lives every day. Like your morning coffee or tea, your daily run or your goodnight kiss, baseball is there for us. Baseball embraces us and we hug back, inning by inning. And, as the season evolves with 162 games across 183 days, we never want to let go. That love affair resumes on Opening Day.

“It’s a day that I try and make sure I celebrate properly,” Aaron Boone said . “Especially with all we’ve been though in the last year as we hopefully, slowly but surely, return to a more normal environment. But tomorrow is special around this game.”

For the Yankees, it’s another season where they are talented enough to win a World Series title, something they haven’t done since 2009. That’s not hyperbole. With a better-than-you-think rotation, a ferocious lineup and a promising bullpen, I think the Yankees are the best team in the American League. That opinion aligns with Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections, which forecast the Yankees to win a league best 97 games. It’s only April, but the Yankees are dreaming big, dreaming about October.

Gerrit Cole will throw the first pitch of 2021 for the Yankees and will also throw the most important pitches of the season for them. I am eager to see Cole pitch every five days in a full season because he’s so talented and so meticulous and because he cares so deeply about his craft. The Yankees (and every other team) will be obsessed with the challenge of squeezing 1,400 innings out of their pitching staffs following a truncated 60-game season. Cole will be a security blanket. Book him for 200 innings.

As I analyze the rotation, the two starters who need to prove that they can be security blankets, too, are Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. They combined to pitch one inning last season. Both looked stellar in Spring Training, but the real and serious tests are looming. Can Kluber be a reasonable facsimile of the pitcher he was from 2014 to 2018? How will Taillon rebound after two Tommy John surgeries? General Manager Brian Cashman has acknowledged that the decisions to sign Kluber and acquire Taillon will only be viewed as savvy choices if both perform effectively.

The Yankees have a deep and powerful lineup that will pester pitchers and score a ton of runs. But here are some items on the Yankees’ offensive wish list: They need Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to stay healthy and play 140 games each. If they do, I would expect them to combine for 80 or more homers. They need Gary Sanchez’s results to match his talent. Sanchez will be scrutinized more than any other Yankee, but a terrific start will silence the noise. Gleyber Torres needs to return to his pre-2020 form and, to me, that’s close to being a guarantee. Cashman spoke bluntly about Torres not being in superb shape last year and I think that has motivated Torres. I predict he will be an MVP candidate. Now that Clint Frazier is the starting left fielder, the Yankees need him to continue to blossom into a consistent producer. Frazier can be a 30-homer hitter. And D.J. LeMahieu? Just hit repeat from 2019 and 2020 and spin the same hits.

Even without Zack Britton for the first few months, I’m intrigued by the Yankee bullpen. As I mentioned, this season will have a survival of the fittest theme for staffs as teams try to figure out how to get the greatest production from their pitchers without overtaxing them. The leap from 60 games to 162 games can be perilous terrain so this management of arms will be as critical as any aspect of the season. Because Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, Nick Nelson and Michael King can pitch multiple innings, that will make them especially valuable.

A championship-caliber team. That’s the way Boone described the Yankees after they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Division Series last season and that’s the way he described them during Spring Training. Boone expressed confidence that the Yankees are ready for the “grueling challenge” of the season and the pursuit of that title, but he added, “Now it’s about following through and living that out consistently.”

That journey starts with Opening Day. Again, those are two of the most magical words in any language. It is almost here, here to give us hope, to be our friend and to allow us to dream again. I’m as eager as ever to cover my 31st Opening Day, excited and hopeful that this will be a memorable season, in many ways, for all of us.