MLB preview: Former Gamecocks remember the thrill, promise of Opening Day

nwhite@thestate.comMarch 30, 2013 

  • USC PLAYERS ON MLB OPENING DAY ROSTERS

    Jackie Bradley, OF, Boston Red Sox (USC, 2009-11)

    Steve Pearce, 1B, Baltimore Orioles (USC, 2004-05)

    Brian Roberts, 2B, Baltimore Orioles (USC, 1999)

    Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners (USC, 2006-08)

Adam Everett will never forget his first Opening Day.

Playing shortstop and batting eighth for the Houston Astros in the 2002 season opener at Minute Maid Park against the Milwaukee Brewers, the former South Carolina standout singled in the second inning off Ben Sheets — his first hit in the big leagues.

That single to left also produced his first career RBI, and he later added an infield single. Everett, who played for the Gamecocks from 1997-98 and spent parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues, learned that day — the first of his nine Opening Days in the majors — how unique the experience is.

“Opening Day is always special. You can’t quite describe it,” Everett said. “There’s so much electricity in the stadium, and the fans are excited. I was very fortunate to play on some good teams, and it was always a packed house.”

Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote a book called “Why Time Begins on Opening Day,” and the day’s appeal remains timeless for fans.

The players feel it, too.

Another former USC shortstop, Tripp Cromer, made two Opening Day rosters in his eight major league seasons. Both came with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998 and ’99. He never will forget the pageantry of the day — the crisp uniforms, the team’s high hopes, the former Dodger greats in attendance and the celebrities on hand at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s hard to explain, but it kind of feels like you’ve finally made it. It’s so much different than any other day just because of everything they put into it,” said Cromer, who played at USC from 1987-89. “It’s the day everybody looks forward to playing. Everybody’s got a clean slate, and everybody’s hopes are, ‘We’re going to win the World Series.’ ”

Cromer laughs as he recalls how the excitement and high hopes can quickly fade in the grind of a 162-game season.

“After that, it’s ‘OK, let’s play another game,’ ” he said. “Of course, sometimes three weeks later, you’re already out of it.”

Everett, who has returned to his native Atlanta and now works for the Astros as an instructor, was a major-league starter for five seasons. He played a role in Houston’s 2005 National League pennant and World Series berth, where the Astros lost to the Chicago White Sox. He saw how Opening Day dreams can become a reality.

“It was so neat to see how excited everybody was to be a part of something that was going to take all of us to ultimately get to our end goal, which was win a championship,” Everett said. “Looking back now, I was very fortunate to be a part of as many Opening Days as I was.”

Everett and Cromer, who now lives and works in Columbia, are two of the 45 former USC players to reach the majors, a figure that includes outfielder Jackie Bradley this season with the Boston Red Sox. A fair share of them never experienced an Opening Day because they were midseason or late-season call-ups.

Cromer, who compiled his most time in a starting role in 1995 with St. Louis and a brief time in 1997 with the Dodgers, never took making the roster to begin the season for granted.

“For me, it was a little more special because I was always that guy on the bubble,” he said. “I remember in ’99, it came down to me and one other guy, and I made it. It was something you dream about, and it’s hard to put into words what it’s like. It was a culmination of all the hard work you put into it and all the time you spent in the minor leagues and college and high school and Little League.”

Those memories carry on into retirement. Everett enjoyed the 2009 Opening Day in Detroit because of the way the city embraced the events surrounding the game.

“They shut down the city. They literally blocked it off and became a big party,” he said. “Everybody was super excited. They were passionate about their Tigers. We’d say, ‘You know, we probably shouldn’t screw this one up.’ ”

For a small-town South Carolina guy such as Cromer, who grew up in Lake City, being introduced to start the season in glitzy L.A., where celebrities such as Tom Hanks were sitting in the stands, always will hold a special place.

“I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” he said. “It was something you’re very proud of and that you can always say you did. Not many people can say that.”

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