Day 462: Spring’s Here – Play Ball!

originally published April 6, 2013

As I solemnly watch another four or so inches settle onto the arctic heaps of April snow here in Edmonton, I turn my attention to the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums who are fully operational, and fully immersed in what the rest of the civilized world refers to as “spring”. We won’t see green grass and jacket-less temperatures here until May, but for those who love the sport of baseball, their happy season has already begun.

I’ll be honest – I’m a football guy. The sport is faster, tougher, and much better at capturing my attention for a three-hour sit-down. But there’s something about the sacred rites of baseball. Maybe I’ve been seduced by the sport’s romanticism in the movies, or maybe I’ve met one too many Americans who loyally and tearfully stand by their teams – be they the Yankees or the Cubs – with a passion and devotion unlike any other in pro sports.

And then there’s opening day.

April 1 was the day the first opening pitches of the 2013 season slapped their way into the meaty hides of catcher’s mitts around the league, though as of this writing not all teams have swept through the joy of their precious home opener. Baseball fans get a little wistful about opening day. The baseball season is an endurance run for its stats-scouring adherents; each of the 16 games in the NFL is an intense sprint to the end of the fourth quarter, but with 162 games on the baseball docket, a lot of drama and emotion will unfold.

On opening day, everyone is even. The lowly Houston Astros can pack last year’s 55-107 season into the anus of memory and poop it into the oblivion of ancient history. Everyone has hope. Everyone can taste the spring-time nectar of possibility that this could be the year. Even Chicago Cubs fans can wear their colors with pride because they are no worse off than anyone else in the league. Not yet, anyway.

The pageantry and celebration – almost a holy celebration – around opening day in baseball is unlike any non-championship day in any other professional sport. In Cincinnati, home of the oldest professional team in the league, opening day is a genuine holiday. While not recognized in an official way (poor government schmucks like me still have to report to work), shops tend to close early, downtown offices serve up buffets and wheel in big-screen TVs to watch the game, and many businesses and schools tend to look the other way when people call in ‘sick’.

MLB’s first pitch of Opening Day is held in Cincinnati every year, and they’re the only team who is guaranteed to start with a home game. A parade stretches through the city. People party in the streets. Nobody questions why their mascot, Gapper, appears to be named after a derogatory title for someone who comes from Saskatchewan.

Before every Major League game, the starting rosters are announced to the crowd. On opening day, everyone gets announced. Everyone gets a moment in the spotlight: all the players, the coaches, the clubhouse staff, the beer guys, the girls walking around with the t-shirt cannons, and every single ticket-holder in the stadium. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But the pageantry is crucial to the day.

The phenomenon is not limited to the majors. Minor league clubs, college, and high school clubs – everyone gets swallowed up by the opening day energy. It’s unlike anything else in sports. Even here in Edmonton, where the Oilers and pro hockey are a more popular religion than most Christian faiths, we don’t have anything like this. The world doesn’t stop, there are no parades, and even though the NHL’s opening day usually falls before the first flakes of winter have desecrated our city streets, nobody throws a downtown block party. In baseball, the holiness of the day can ooze its way through almost everyone in town.

There have been a few unforgettable moments in opening day history. Dating back to 1910, twelve United States presidents have thrown out the first pitch of the season. Barrack Obama threw the opening pitch to launch the Washington Nationals’ 2010 season, a season in which the team finished last in their division. No doubt Republicans and/or Fox News blamed the President’s pitch for that one.

Last year marked the longest opening day game in history, when the Toronto Blue Jays dragged out a sixteen-inning contest against the Cleveland Indians, eventually crushing the home team 7-4. The 1926 opener between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Washington Senators was almost as long (15 innings), but remarkably more dull, ending in a 1-0 win for Washington.

The pitcher in that 1-0 defense-fest was this guy:

That’s Walter Johnson, one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. That 1-0 win was his fourteenth opening day win for the Senators, nine of which were shut-outs. It’s tradition to start your best pitcher on opening day – it’s no wonder Walter got the honor almost every year. Another opening day star was Boston’s Ted Williams, who in fourteen openers batted a .449, hit three home runs, 14 RBIs, and got a hit in every opening game.

The Braves’ Hank Aaron cracked his 714th career home run, tying Babe Ruth’s record, with his first swing on opening day, 1974. The record for most opening day starts for a pitcher goes to Tom Seaver, who appeared in sixteen. The record for most opening day ceremonial first pitches goes to Detroit Wolverines catcher Charlie Bennett. Bennett had his legs amputated after a train accident in 1894, and was granted the opening privilege of throwing out the first pitch in Bennett Park every year until his death in 1927.

Occasionally the passion of the day overwhelms people. Back in 1907, the New York Giants had to forfeit their opening day game to the Philadelphia Phillies because rowdy fans started throwing snowballs onto the field. NYPD presence was slim to nil, and the ump had no choice but to call the game for Philly.

Luckily, violence and unruly behavior doesn’t happen often on opening day – fans tend to wait until the playoffs for that. Perhaps that’s because there are still 161 games left to play, so even a head-smacking, horrible loss can be put in the past. Maybe fans simply have too much reverence for the start of a fresh season to let falling one game below .500 get to them.

Maybe it’s just the magic of opening day.

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