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The spectacle that signals a new season for America's game brings home something a little different to every player and fan. It's time to see who will step up to the plate.

March 29, 2001|DEVRA MAZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While researching and writing his first draft of the Oscar-winning film "Gladiator," screenwriter-producer David Franzoni noticed some odd similarities to the world of baseball. "A popular gladiator could become very wealthy and might even do product endorsements," says Franzoni. "For instance, he might have his fresco painted on an olive importer's merchant ships so Roman folk could say, 'There's the Brute of Burbank and he drinks Yahoo olive oil.' "

But there are also striking differences. "The Romans had a particular national identity," he says. "They were unbelievably tough, and the game that celebrated their national psyche was violent to prove it."

Though the Colosseum's main event no longer plays to packed crowds, baseball has claimed its title as this era's longest-running arena sport. As a screenwriter who has spent the last year researching and writing a baseball movie, I've often speculated on what America's game says about our national psyche. Opening day may hold a clue.

Whether it be Hollywood films, Broadway plays or the start of the TV season, Americans love grand openings. So it is only fitting that our national pastime have some of the grandest.

Stadiums throughout the country are dressed in their best bunting, as if the very seats are excited about the pending season. Grounds crews are polishing their fields' diamond stages, gracing their centers with mounds of dirt spotlight. As tickets are sold and final touches are placed on pregame festivities, to many of us it seems clear baseball is among the best entertainments.

Boston's Pedro Martinez, this planet's most dominating pitcher, thinks the reasons are as plentiful as his array of pitches: "It's a game that uses all of your skills, mentally, physically, spiritually, but you can't win it by relying on just one man. It takes teamwork. It's a very fun game, but it's never predictable."

For Dodgers General Manager Kevin Malone, opening days are packed with potential. "It's the culmination of all your hard work. It's almost like having a baby, in that it's a new beginning. You'll never pass this way again."

"There's a big crowd out there, and we all want to get off to a good start," says Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez. It's enough to give a seasoned pro stage fright. "It's like the first day of Little League," says Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. "You feel the same way you did when you were 11. You have butterflies and you can't wait to get your first hit."

And that's not always easy to do. "You have to go up there with the mentality that it's just like any other at-bat," says the Angels' Darin Erstad, and he ought to know. For his hitting and fielding prowess last season he won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards--the sword and shield of a star attraction.

His opening-day strategy begins with the last days of spring training. "You have to approach those games like they're regular season games," Erstad says. "That way you don't feel like you're thrown in the fire."

This weekend, the Angels and Dodgers play their final exhibitions at their home parks, giving fans a chance to see those dress rehearsals. Derrick Hall, Dodgers senior vice president of communications, points out that the previews are also a final casting call. "There's still players trying desperately to make the team, and that'll be their last chance to prove themselves to the fans and coaching staff."

But when opening day dawns, excitement is inevitable, whether it's a new call-up or a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer, like the Padres' Tony Gwynn. "I still get chills," says Gwynn, who will be honored at his home opener in celebration of his 20th year in the majors. "I don't think I've ever swung at the first pitch in my first at-bat, and I don't think that'll change because I'll be trying to calm down. But after that first pitch, boom! The game just kicks in." But he'll still keep an amused eye on the rookies. "They're pacing up and down, trying to hit balls 9 miles in batting practice. It's fun watching what they go through."

"Your first opening day you're kind of scared," says Jose Tolentino, a former major league first baseman, now the Spanish-language radio analyst for the Angels on XPRS-AM (1090). "If you don't love the game, it's just like any other day. But if you do, you have to make sure your feelings don't overwhelm you. You can enjoy it and say, 'I'm a blessed person because I get to wear a major league uniform and play baseball.' "

Like the Angels, many teams will spend opening day on the road, some visiting other teams' home openers before they can enjoy their own. But in an age of free-agent musical ballclubs, coming home isn't always easy. "It's a little nerve-racking going to a new town because you don't know how you'll be accepted," says Boston's agile infielder Craig Grebeck. "For me, being able to play behind Pedro as opposed to facing him is the best thing about it."

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