Pomp and circumstance invades Philly

Pomp and circumstance invades Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- There's always something special about Opening Day.

Whether you're a rookie, 15-year veteran or longtime manager, the anticipation of that first regular-season game is something that can't be matched.

"Even in the Minor Leagues, I was so hyper on that first day," said Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. "I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark to swing the bat. I was nervous, excited, anxious. I used to go through all the emotions. It was all good stuff. It never gets old. It gets better every year."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was eagerly awaiting his sixth Opening Day between stints with the Indians and Philadelphia. In fact, the fourth-year Phillies skipper was watching the exciting Nationals-Braves game on television Sunday night and fell asleep in the eighth inning. He woke up at 1:45 a.m. ET, watched the highlights and never went back to sleep.

He was going over the Phillies lineup, pondering late-game switches, doing all the things a manager does on a daily basis. It just happened to start six hours before he usually wakes up.

"I had some coffee this morning, yes," Manuel joked before turning serious. "I've still got a lot of energy and passion for this game."

How could he not after leading the Phillies to their first playoff berth and National League East championship last season for the first time since 1993. The players also got an inkling of how thrilling postseason baseball can be.

Since this is Opening Day and not October, the road to potential back-to-back titles begins now.

"We're so energized," Howard said. "We know what it felt like to win the division, and it was incredible. We have to remain focused on the beginning of the season and that means every game counts the same. I'm relaxed, but also incredibly excited at the same time. Once the first pitch is thrown, I'll relax and get into the flow."

After 18 years of Opening Day ceremonies, and lining up along a base line, Tom Gordon isn't tired of the experience.

"It doesn't get old," said Gordon, who experienced his 19th Opening Day, this time at Citizens Bank Park. "As far as being a professional athlete, this is one of the most memorable experiences."

Gordon's first came in 1989 while with the Royals, and the 40-year-old and father of six joked that he approves of cutting school for the occasion.

"Kids have Christmas, I have Opening Day," said Gordon. "It's a wonderful thing and I enjoy it just like the holidays. It's filled with a lot of hype and everyone is watching. What I enjoy most about it is that every stadium has that World Series atmosphere. I've never been to a World Series, so I can imagine what that's like. I've been to 19 of these, I haven't gotten tired of it.

The fans were into the flow long before the game started at 3:05 p.m. Despite the inclement weather, the faithful Phillies backers were decked out in red outside Citizens Bank Park.

One family of six had a replay of last season's division-clinching victory over the Nationals playing in their SUV.

"This gets us fired up, watching it all over again," said John Smithville of West Chester, Pa. "I've been a Phillies season ticket holder for 20 years and I've never felt this type of excitement before. Every season has excitement, but with the success the team had last year, we're pumped up. Brett Myers is going to make the transition from closer to top-flight starting pitcher and we're going all the way with the lineup we have. We had a taste of the playoffs. This time, we're not getting swept. We're coming back as an experienced team ready to go for the kill."

Even with the steady light rain that fell before the game, it didn't diminish the excitement generated by the Fralinger String Band, the six-time first-place winners of the city's New Year's Day Mummers Parade. The fans in the ballpark waved their 2007 NL East champions pennant, courtesy of Modell's Sporting Goods.

Mayor Michael Nutter received a rousing ovation after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

This town has clearly been transformed back into a baseball town with the ascension of the Phillies' young stars like Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, last year's Most Valuable Player, second baseman Chase Utley, Myers and fellow pitcher Cole Hamels.

"You know, you can feel the energy in the park," Hamels said. "I'm sure it's going to be rockin' all day. Opening Day is great, because it signifies the season is here. Spring Training is over and the games count for real. The fans meant so much to us during our run to the division last season. They're going to be huge again this year. It makes us want to play harder."

Center fielder Shane Victorino said that the buzz from the crowd gave the Phillies an edge, especially when they were trailing late in games. It's probably not a complete coincidence that the Phillies led all Major League clubs with 48 come-from-behind wins a season ago.

"With the type of talent and character we have, the fans never felt like we were out of a game, and neither did we," Victorino said. "We always felt like we were going to come back and get the win. I think that really helped us at home. We're looking forward to giving the fans another very exciting season."

The same goes for Phillies public address announcer Dan Baker, who donned a tuxedo in his 37th Opening Day with the Phillies.

"Time flies," Baker said. "This is great."

Now that the first pitch has been thrown, the waiting is over. It's time to defend the division title, a role the Phillies are prepared for.

"I like the pressure of trying to repeat," Victorino said. "This is a relaxed clubhouse and we don't really feel pressure, as you put it. We're treating it like a new season with a whole new set of challenges."

Andy Jasner is a contributor to MLB.com. Reporter Ken Mandel contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.