Opening Day. Mention those words to any sports fan, and, immediately, he knows what it means and to which sport it pertains. Not football, not basketball, not hockey. OD means that another season of Major League Baseball is beginning. Baseball fans look forward to OD every year. Local newspapers step up their coverage of the local team in anticipation. Many of them even print a daily countdown of the number of days remaining until OD. In addition, OD occurs in the Spring, a season that symbolizes a new beginning and one which most people anticipate every year.
Most fans will acknowledge that baseball is no longer the most popular sport. In fact, according to TV ratings, betting interest and most fan polls, football has superseded baseball. However, baseball, which has been played in the US in some form since the 1840s, is part of the social fabric of America. Most men remember their first game of “catch” with their father or their first baseball game. In fact, I have a more detailed recall of a World Series game I saw with my father in 1956 than I do of ballgames I saw last year.
Every fan is optimistic on OD. Every team starts with the same 0-0 record. No one has lost a game yet. Every team still has a chance to make the playoffs, and as we have seen in recent years, once you make the playoffs anything can happen. Many fans and even some reporters place undue emphasis on the opener forgetting or ignoring the fact that the season consists of 162 games. Over the course of a baseball season even the best teams will lose approximately 60-70 games. To many fans, a win OD means the season will be outstanding; a loss means the team “stinks.”
For many years, MLB had scheduled the very first game of the season in Cincinnati, usually on the first Monday in April. This was in recognition of the fact that the Reds were the first professional baseball team. The team was formed in 1869 as the Red Stockings. Incidentally, they went 65-0 that year, the only perfect season in baseball history. However, several years ago MLB began scheduling Sunday night games to be televised on ESPN in prime time the night before the “official” OD. This year there are three “pre-openers.” The feature game will be the NY Mets at Kansas City, a rematch of last year’s World Series. Most teams will open on Monday, although two teams’ openers will be delayed until Tuesday. Why three “ODs?” Who knows, although a good guess would be tv.
Down through the years, OD has produced some memorable events, such as:
1. In 1907, the NY Giants, forerunner of the San Francisco Giants, forfeited the opener after rowdy fans began throwing snowballs at the players and umpires. There were not enough police on hand to restore order, so the umpires forfeited the game to the visiting Phillies.
2. In 1910 President Taft became the first President to throw out the “first ball.” In 1950 President Truman threw out the “first pitch” twice, as a righty and a lefty. In total, twelve Presidents have thrown out the “first pitch.” Will we see President Obama do the “wave” this year? I can hardly wait.
3. In 1940, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, known as “Rapid Robert” because of his high velocity, threw the only OD day no-hitter in baseball history. As an aside, there were no radar guns in Feller’s day, so one day some officials attempted to “time” his fastball by having him throw a pitch against a speeding motor cycle.
4. In 1947 Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on OD becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues since the 19th Century.
5. In 1975 Frank Robinson became the first African American to manage in the Major Leagues.
6. In 1996, John McSherry, an umpire, suffered a fatal heart attack near home plate.
7. Early in the 20th Century teams would, on occasion, open with a doubleheader. Doubleheaders used to be quite common, particularly on Sundays and holidays. Now, they are rare, and when they do occur it is usually the result of adding an extra game to make up for a rain-out.
8. Tom Seaver started the most openers – 16. Walter Johnson pitched the most OD shutouts – nine.
Today’s dreary, rainy weather in NY on the eve of the baseball season is more suitable to football. It reminds me of one of the major criticisms of baseball, that the season is too long. Many of the early season games will be played in cold, damp conditions and, perhaps, even snow. We all know why that is the case – tv money. The owners like it, because it makes them rich and less dependent on attendance for revenues. The players tolerate it, because it fuels their astronomic salaries. As for the fans, well, they will just have to grin and bear it.
Finally, I am reminded of that noted philosopher, Yogi Berra, who is reputed to have said: “A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.”