The wind was swirling so violently and the sky was so dark in the ninth inning that it all looked like a scene from a classic thriller. It actually was, by the reckoning of people who saw it, thrilling and better than fiction. No argument there, except from Scott Rice, who insisted it was just baseball.
In a way, the perfect inning he pitched was just like any of the 4012/3 that Rice threw in minor- league ball. He relied on his routine, experience and talent to finish the 11-2 Opening Day victory for the Mets.
On the other hand, people close to Rice know just how perfect that one inning was. It came for him at the age of 31, after 14 swirling, dark years in the minors. He finally made it into a big-league game.
"What a journey, what a great day for him,'' said teammate Collin Cowgill, impressed amid his own big day, capped by a grand slam.
"It's one of the great stories,'' said Terry Collins, the manager who summoned Rice into the game Monday. "After 14 years in the minor leagues, in his first outing, I just hope he enjoyed the whole thing. I hope he stood on the mound in that wind, took a deep breath and said, 'I'm here now. Let's have some fun with it.' ''
"Not yet,'' the pitcher said. "We have a day off tomorrow, so I'll be able to do that tonight and tomorrow -- relish it. But we've got 161 games left. This was just one inning.''
Still, it was an inning that he had dreamed of when he was in the third grade and said he wanted to be a big-league pitcher, drawing cynical laughs from the other kids.
It was an inning that has been in the brew since his father, Dennis, a former college player, taught him how to throw a ball in their Southern California yard. It was an inning that a contingent -- Rice's wife, his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, their children and a former minor-league teammate -- came to see.
Dennis Rice will return home across the country carrying the game ball from a major- league contest. His son struck out two batters and retired a third on a groundout. "He's got a display case of all the leagues I've played in, which is a lot,'' Scott Rice said. "It's actually turned into two display cases.''
The pitcher -- a hot teen prospect who was chosen 44th overall by the Orioles in 1999 -- caught his dad's eye during the national anthem Monday and again as he walked off the field.
"He's the guy I call when I have a bad outing. It's just as rewarding for him, I think, as it is for me,'' said the lefthanded reliever, who spent part of the 2008 season living a block away from the water in Lake Ronkonkoma while pitching for the Ducks.
There have been a lot of rough outings and a bunch of injuries, but no matter what happens from here on in, no one can wipe that inning from major-league records. An inning that Rice had envisioned.
"I didn't expect to get two strikeouts. I'm not usually a strikeout guy,'' he said before adding: "It was kind of what I expected in a way. It was baseball.''