BALTIMORE -- Opening Day of the baseball season is all about renewed hope, turning the page, fresh starts. But it isn't often though that the poetic promise of a clean slate plays out as dramatically as it did on a sunny Monday afternoon in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
When the Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, Fla., slugger Nelson Cruz was still looking for a job. Who's to say why? He hit 27 homers and drove in 76 runs in just 109 games for the Rangers last season. Maybe it's because he missed 50 games after being suspended for links to the Biogenesis investigation. Maybe he overestimated his value on the market.
Regardless, the Rangers made little effort to keep him and other teams didn't line up to sign him either.
A few weeks before the Red Sox pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers, Fla., Grady Sizemore signed a one-year contract with Boston. The news evoked more what-might-have-been nostalgia than excitement. Once considered one of baseball's best and brightest young stars -- think of how Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are talked about today -- his last great season was with the Indians in 2008. He hit 33 homers, drove in 90 runs, had an .876 OPS. He was 25 years old and his future seemed limitless.
When Sizemore signed with the Red Sox on Jan. 22, he hadn't played a game in the previous two seasons because of a series of serious back and knee injuries.
Opening Day worked its restorative magic for both players on Monday.
Sizemore, who beat out No. 3 prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. in the Grapefruit League, started in center field. It was his first game in 922 days. Sizemore singled his first time up. In his second at bat, leading off the fourth against Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman, he homered to right to tie the score at 1. It was his first home run since July 15, 2011.
Cruz, who was cheered by the partisan Orioles crowd when introduced before the game, had walked and scored Baltimore's first run in the second. He led off the seventh and drilled the first pitch from Red Sox ace Jon Lester into the seats in left for what turned out to be the decisive shot in the Orioles' 2-1 win over the defending World Series champions. W.P. Kinsella couldn't have written a better script.
"I dreamed about a good start," Cruz said. "And I think the dream came true."
During a winter when dozens of players cashed in with rich, long-term deals, Cruz signed a one-year contract with a guaranteed base salary of $8 million. Sizemore was an even bigger bargain. He's getting $750,000 plus incentives.
Both players have something to prove. Cruz has to demonstrate that he can put Biogenesis behind him and still put up big numbers. If the enthusiastic reception he received even before the game is any indication, the fans are willing to forgive and forget.
"New team, new teammates, new fans. So I think God blessed me today and gave me a chance to drive in the winning run," Cruz said. "It was really special. I think I made the right decision to come and be part of this organization. And be part of this town. So hopefully I can do some stuff to contribute to get some Ws for this team."
Red Sox manager John Farrell spoke poignantly about Sizemore's tribulations before the game.
"This is the realization of a lot of work. To have the game taken away, I'm sure there were a lot of lonely hours," Farrell noted.
Sizemore's durability will remain an issue for awhile. The Red Sox will take care to make sure he gets days off. But baseball's long journey starts with a single game and this one helped make all the solitary training worthwhile.
"I think every day I've been here since Spring Training has been gratifying. I'm just happy to be back, happy to be healthy, looking forward to getting the opportunity to play and help contribute," Sizemore said.
"It was very exciting. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark. I was up first thing in the morning and definitely had a better appreciation for the game and all the little things that go into it. For me, it was more, I wasn't thinking my career is over, it just how am I going to get back. I just couldn't find the right game plan. You just try to find any solution to get healthy."
Sizemore didn't think he hit the home run that well, and may have even broken his bat. He said he was shocked when he saw the umpire signaling that the ball had gone out. Shocked and also moved.
"I definitely felt, not like the pressure was off, but it just felt good to get the first one out of the way," said Sizemore. "When you've been gone for so long and you step in there for your first one, just have a good at-bat. Not necessarily get a hit, but just hit the ball hard. It felt good."
Opening Day is about hope springing eternal and new beginnings. It's hard to imagine two players illustrating that ancient truth more neatly than Nelson Cruz and Grady Sizemore did Monday.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less