Play ball! Obama, Big Mac highlight opening day

By Ben Walker/The Associated Press

Tim Lincecum hoped to avoid another hairy start. So the Giants ace with the long locks told himself this was just like any outing in June or July.

That worked, mostly.

“It wasn’t that uncontrollable hype-ed-ness where I didn’t know what was going on,” the two-time Cy Young winner said after pitching seven shutout innings Monday to beat Houston. “I kind of had an idea what was going on. Obviously, opening day can be a little overwhelming, a little bit more exciting than a usual game.”

A year after struggling in the opener, Lincecum did fine. Ditto for World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, Roy Halladay, Jason Bay, Vladimir Guerrero, Placido Polanco and other stars who made neat debuts for their new teams.

Albert Pujols launched two more home runs and President Barack Obama tossed another ball. Yet no one enjoyed the day as much as Jason Heyward.

Billed as the majors’ next phenom, the Braves prospect bridged baseball’s past and future Monday when he caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron.

Then with the Atlanta crowd chanting his name, the 20-year-old Heyward mashed a three-run homer on his first swing in the big leagues.

“I had a blast,” the rookie said.

Mark McGwire made a more quiet return. Back in baseball after admitting he took steroids, Big Mac drew little reaction in Cincinnati when he was introduced as the new hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.

In New York, there were a few boos. After seeing their club crippled by injuries last season, Mets fans heckled — of all people — the team trainers. Tough crowd!

Cubs manager Lou Piniella didn’t seem real pleased, either, when the umpires’ call went against him on a dropped fly ball. After a postseason dotted with missed calls, there are sure to be more shouts this year for extra instant replay.

Milton Bradley was a bit perturbed, too. He broke his bat into several splinters after slamming it to the ground in frustration after a strikeout. Now with Seattle, the often volatile outfielder was jeered all game in Oakland by his former fans.

A day after Boston beat the World Series champion New York Yankees in the major league opener, most every team swung into action. Reds Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach joined in opening-day festivities.

On a huge sports day in America — the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, the Tiger Woods news conference — baseball delivered a full first serving.

For 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr., it was time to enjoy an opener.

“They’re always special, the start of six months of baseball,” the Seattle star said.

There were 13 games on the schedule, plus a bid for history. Toronto pitcher Shaun Marcum took a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Texas before it got broken up by Guerrero.

All over, the weather held. Rather than the dreary, upper 30s temperatures that often dampen openers, it was a beautiful day to play ball. In Milwaukee, this was the earliest the Miller Park roof was open for a regular-season game in its 10-year history.

Obama drew a loud ovation when he continued a tradition that started 100 years ago with William Howard Taft — the presidential first pitch. He warmed up with some practice tosses at the White House but, really, the lefty could use a little more time in the bullpen.

Obama double-pumped, rocked on the mound a few times and made a high-and-wide flip to the plate that Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman snared. It probably helped that Zimmerman was coming off winning his first Gold Glove.

At least Obama, whose smooth stroke on the basketball court is well documented, put more oomph into it. Last year, he barely reached the plate at the All-Star game.

“If I had a whole inning, I’m telling you, I would have cleaned up,” he said.

A White Sox fan, Obama waited until he got to the mound to put on a Chicago cap. The play of the day — of the year, perhaps — came from Obama’s pal on the White Sox, pitcher Mark Buehrle.

Tracking down a ball that caromed off his leg into foul territory, the Gold Glove winner made a blind, between-the-legs flip with his glove to get the out at first base.

“You run over there saying, ‘Do I slide and spin, or do I grab the ball and throw it?'” Buehrle said. “I think every thought went through my head. It just happened the way it did.”