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 In fact, according to TV ratings, betting interest and most fan polls, football has superseded baseball.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. None 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. For example, last year the World Champion Chicago Cubs (Wow, never thought I would ever say that!) won it all for the first time since 1908. Think about that for a minute. That means that no present Cubs fan, and virtually none of their fathers, were even born the last time the Cubs won before last year.
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 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, for you trivia buffs, 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 NY Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays, World Champion Chicago Cubs vs. the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks. Most teams will open on Monday, April 3. Why multiple ODs? TV dollars would be a good guess.
MLB has been trying to develop its international presence. One way has been to schedule OD contests in various foreign venues. The first one was in 1999 in Monterrey, Mexico. For the record, the Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres. Since then, there have been eleven season openers held in international venues. Tokyo has hosted the most, eight. Sydney has hosted two and San Juan one.
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 Trump follow tradition this year? Your guess is as good as mine. Can you imagine him doing the “wave?”
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. The reason? Money.
8. Tom Seaver started the most openers – 16. Walter Johnson pitched the most OD shutouts – nine.
9. In 1974 Henry Aaron clouted his 714th homerun tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record for career homers.
Weather is often an issue on OD. Many games are played in northern cities where it is not unusual to have cold, damp, rainy weather in early April that is more suitable to football than baseball. (As I write this, it is cool, damp and rainy in NY, although our reliable local meteorologists assure us the weather will be nice for Monday’s Mets home opener.) It reminds me of one of the major criticisms of baseball, that the season is too long. We all know the reason – 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.
Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn summed up the essence of OD thusly: “An opener is not like any other game. You have that anxiety to get off to a good start, for yourself and for the team. You know that when you win the first one you can’t lose them all.” Finally, I am reminded of that renowned philosopher Yogi Berra, who could turn a phrase with the best of them, who is reputed to have said: “A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.”