Monday, April 03, 2006

The hope of opening day

Baseball, more than any other major sport, cherishes the opening of its annual campaign. Whether it’s the sense that every team and player begins with a clean slate, or because baseball for much of its history had the hallowed reputation as America’s pastime, whatever the reason, opening day ushers in a sense of hope and a lessening of some of America’s omnipresent cynicism.

Unlike other sports that are ruled by the tick of the clock and governed by time, baseball always offers its fans the hope that no matter what the scoreboard might read, their team will always harbor the hope of redemption until the last out is recorded. Maybe it’s that redemption thread that imbues each new season with unbridled optimism.

Even U.S. presidents have gotten in on the act, with the sitting president being present to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, dating back to April 14, 1910, when baseball enthusiast William Howard Taft, attended Washington’s home opener and lent officialdom’s stamp to the nation’s game. Harry Truman is said to have showcased his ambidextrous talent in 1950, when he threw out first pitches, both right-handed and then, left-handed.

My own experience as a baseball fan came full circle, when back on a frigid day in 2000, my father and I shared a Red Sox opening day from high in the right field grandstand at hallowed Fenway Park. While the game would have been warmer viewed at home on the television, there was something special about being there, with nearly 34,000 other fans, many of them fully under the influence of a daylong parade to the beer tap. Nevertheless, we cheered ourselves hoarse, as newly-acquired Carl Everett, belted two home runs and the good guys prevailed, 13-4. Two years later, Everett would have worn out his welcome in Boston, as he had in New York and Houston before that. On that day, Red Sox nation didn’t care about his views about gays, God, or his penchant for blowing a gasket.

On opening day, 2006, baseball faces new challenges to its status as America’s game. With steroid allegations running rampant concerning Barry Bonds and his quest for the home run crown and current commissioner, Bud Selig, unable, or unwilling to address the issue with the kind of position that will put the issue to bed for good, baseball will struggle with the cloud of scandal floating over its boys of summer. In addition to steroids, the escalation of salaries, ticket prices in the stratosphere and owners caring more about their corporate cronies than the guy next door, baseball’s future remains clouded. In fact, any game that a fan views on television will have each aspect of the game wrapped neatly in the logo of some corporation.

As baseball struggles to maintain its base of fans in the early days of the 21st century, will youngsters of today, weaned on video games and five second sound bites, find the same comfort and solace in the pastoral pace of baseball that many of its older fans have learned to cherish. Even those of us who were drawn by the sounds of baseball, heard listening to scratchy transistor broadcasts, feel the tug of competing loyalties between the purer game of our youthful (and less cynical) memories and the polluted professional game we now follow, with pangs of ambivalence invading our consciences and crowding out the passions that once prevailed when we heard the crack of the bat and the smell of leather.

Still, all of this speculation and questioning can wait until tomorrow, because today is opening day. Each club is 0-0. Every hitter who comes out of the shoot with a vengeance will carry an average in the stratosphere until the at bats begin piling up and the days grow longer. Veteran pitchers, with questions about their aging arms, can cheat father time and quiet the critics for a short time, with that exemplary initial outing, fueled by adrenaline and guts.

In a matter of weeks, months, or during those dog days of the pennant race, when the posers will be exposed, the chaff will be seperated from the true contenders. Despite the contrariness fueled in some corners by Moneyball and its acolytes, the realities of low payrolls, poor draft choices and unwise trades will ultimately separate the contenders from the pretenders and that initial optimism will fade into the recognition that the preseason house of cards and expectations long overdue have come tumbling down.

Today, however, eternal hope is as real in Tampa Bay and Detroit, as it is in Boston and New York. The Cubs’ fan in Wrigleyville, believes that come September, his lovable losers will be basking in the glory that was stolen by those southside interlopers, the White Sox. For one day, at least, the fans of Mudville can dream of better things, and that’s a part of why opening day is special.



Blogger Joe said...

You still get plenty of advertising at the ballpark, but it's a bit less over-the-top.

We should start plans today for Bloggers At The Ballpark. Maybe we can get seats in the new RF pavilion at Hadlock.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

I liked your ode to opening day. For baseball fans, this is always the signal to us and alerts us to that "sense of hope" that you wrote about.

If I might offer you a bit of advise, w/out sounding too condescending. Enjoy the simple things about the game that you obviously remember from a better or "purer" time period.

Forget about idiots like Barry Bonds and appreciate those players that remind you of the heroes you had when you were younger and less jaded.


9:27 AM  

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