OPENING DAY

It’s April 1, and today, after a long winter of cold, rain and COVID restrictions, is the start of the 2021 baseball season, aka OPENING DAY. All 30 teams are scheduled, although inclement weather may force some postponements.

In some years MLB has scheduled “pre-opening” games before the official OD. The initial pre-opener was in 1999 in Monterey, Mexico. Other pre-openers have been played in San Juan, Sydney and, most recently, in Tokyo. Opening in these distant locales may be inconvenient for the players, but MLB does it to broaden the exposure and appeal of the game. Indeed, MLB rosters are chock full of players from countries in places such as the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Asia. Nearly 30% of MLB players are foreign-born.

MLB does not consider these pre-openers to mark the official start of the season. It has always considered OD to be the first date when a full slate of games was scheduled. Got it?

As you know, last year MLB was forced to limit the length of the season to 60 games due to restrictions resulting from COVID, but this year it plans to play a full slate of 162 games. Let’s hope and pray it will be able to do so. Most ballparks will permit a limited amount of fans depending on local COVID policies. Expect requirements to wear masks and maintain social distancing, but, to me, such restrictions are a small price to pay to be able to attend the games.

Usually, the early games are plagued by inclement weather – cold, rain, even snow – especially in the northeast. Not an ideal scenario for MLB and its fans, but that’s the price we pay in order for the World Series to be completed before November.

For many years, MLB had scheduled the very first game of the season in Cincinnati, usually on the first Monday in April, with a full slate of games the next day. This was in recognition of the fact that the Reds were the first professional baseball team. In fact, the Reds are the only team that has always been scheduled to play its first game at home. There have only been two years when they opened on the road – 1966, when the home opener was rained out and 1990 when the season was delayed due to the lockout. The team was formed in 1869 as the Red Stockings. The team has undergone various name changes and is now known as the “Reds.” Incidentally, for you trivia buffs, they went 65-0 that first year, the only perfect season in baseball history.

The National League was organized in 1876, and the American League in 1901. For many years there were 16 teams – eight teams in each league, all in the northeast, with no team being located west of St. Louis. With the advent of air travel in the late 1950s it became feasible to add franchises in other sectors of the country. Presently, there are 30 teams – 15 in each league.

Despite the often inclement weather, OD holds a special meaning. 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. Perhaps, basketball has as well, particularly among younger fans. 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. For most boys it is a “rite of passage” as uniquely American as the flag. 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, in 2016 the Chicago Cubs 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 previous time the Cubs had won. In 2017 the Houston Astros won their first WS after having languished near the bottom of the league for many years. Several wild card teams have actually won the World Series, most recently, the Washington Nationals, in 2019.

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.”

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. Over the years nearly every president has done so, and the practice has evolved from a perfunctory toss from the stands to a more elaborate ceremonial toss from the mound. Will we see President Biden follow tradition this year? Your guess is as good as mine, but I doubt it. 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 fast ball, 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 motorcycle.
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, of course.
8. In 1946 Boston Braves fans attending the game got an unpleasant surprise. It seems that the Braves’ management had had the stands freshly painted, and the paint had not completely dried. Many fans got red paint all over their clothes. The embarrassed management issued a public apology and paid the fans’ cleaning bills.
9. Tom Seaver started the most openers – 16. Walter Johnson pitched the most OD shutouts – nine, including a 1-0 victory in which he pitched 15 innings. No chance of that happening today.
10. In 1974 Henry Aaron clouted his 714th homerun tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record for career homers.
11. In 1968 minor leaguer Greg Washburn became the only pitcher to appear in two OD games in the same year. (He won both 2-0).

12. Some of the individual OD records we may see broken today are most home runs (3), most hits (5) most RBIs (7) and most strikeouts (15). Maybe, we will see another no-hitter, although the way the game is played today any no-hitter would be a group effort.

CONCLUSION

As I said, weather is often an issue on OD, especially in the northern cities where it is not unusual to have cold, damp, rainy weather in early April that is more suitable to football than baseball. 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.” Joe DiMaggio, always looked forward to OD. He felt “you think something wonderful is going to happen.” 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.”

My hope and prediction is for a Yankees-Dodgers World Series. They used to meet on what seemed like a regular basis, but they have not met since 1981. I think fans around the country would be “all-in,” and I know the media would love it. Last year, the Dodgers won the WS for the first time since 1988, and I’m hoping for a repeat.

What is your favorite OD memory? Please share.

PLAY BALL!

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