Today is March 30, and after a long winter of cold, rain, economic turmoil, war, COVID issues, and political bickering and squabbling, today will mark the start of the 2023 baseball season, aka OPENING DAY. As we know, sports are a healthy diversion, especially in difficult times such as now.
For the first time since 1968 all 30 MLB teams will open on the same day. Typically, many early season (and late season) games are played in weather more suitable for football. Why? We know why – M O N E Y. If MLB persists in playing games in March, April and November why doesn’t it mandate domed stadiums in cold weather locales? Probably, too logical for the Lords of Baseball.
In some years MLB has scheduled “pre-opening” games before the official OD. The initial “pre-opener” was played in 1999 in Monterey, Mexico. Other “pre-openers” have been played in San Juan, Sydney and 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 the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Asia. According to MLB 27% 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?
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 three years when they opened on the road – 1966, when the home opener was rained out and 1990 and 2022 when those seasons were delayed due to lockouts. The team was formed in 1869 as the Red Stockings. It 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 or she 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 (and women) remember their first game of “catch” with their father and their first baseball game. For most 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 (at least in theory), 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 meant that, at the time, no Cubs fan, and virtually none of their fathers, had even been 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.
Unlike other sports, very often the team with the best regular season record does not win the World Series or even get there. Even the best baseball teams generally lose about 40% of their games. If those losses come at the wrong time, it’s sayonara.
Five wild card teams have actually won the World Series, most recently, the Washington Nationals, in 2019. Furthermore, in 2002 and 2014 both WS participants were wild cards (the Angels beat the Giants in 2002, and the Giants beat the Royals in 2014). Six teams – the Padres, Mariners, Brewers, Rays, Rangers and Rockies – have never won a WS, and the Mariners have never even appeared in one.
Many fans, and even some reporters, place undue emphasis on the opener forgetting or ignoring the fact that the season consists of 162 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. 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. Later, he became the first AA manager to be “fired.”
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 Angels minor leaguer Greg Washburn became the only pitcher to appear in two OD games in the same year. Huh? How did he do that? First, he pitched the opener for the San Jose Bees of the California League and then for the Quad City Angels of the Midwest League. (He won both games 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.
This year MLB will institute various rules changes, which have already been tried out in the minor leagues and MLB exhibition games this year. Generally, these rules changes are designed to appeal to fans by enhancing the action on the field, decreasing the length of games, and increasing the pace, which has often slowed to a crawl. In 1980 the average game took two hours and 33 minutes; last year the average game lasted almost four hours.
Below please find a brief summary of the aforementioned rules changes:
- Pitch timer. There will be a time limit between batters and between individual pitches. The penalty for failure to comply will be an automatic “ball” or “strike.” No more pitchers’ interminable dawdling on the mound between pitches and batters continually stepping in and out of the “box” and/or adjusting their equipment.
- Pickoff throws/Step-offs. Pitchers will only be allowed two “disengagements” per batter. A failed third attempt to pickoff the runner will result in a balk advancing the runner.
- Defensive shifts. The team in the field is required to position at least four defenders in the infield at least two of which must be on either side of second base. There is no restriction on the placement of outfielders. The goal is to produce more offense since players can’t or won’t beat the shifts by bunting or hitting to the opposite field.
- The size of the bases has been increased by three inches. The goal here is to increase stolen bases and reduce injuries around the bases.
- More balanced schedule. For the first time teams will play at least one series against every opponent. There are pros and cons to this rule change, but with three wild card teams in each league it was deemed to be unfair that a wild card contender in a weak division would have a scheduling advantage over one in a strong division.
- Faster replays. Managers will have less time in which to request a replay. Fine, but will the actual reviews still take several minutes? Most of the time, tv viewers can ascertain the correct call right away. Why can’t the tv replay guys?
- Position players pitching. The proliferation of this tactic has made a mockery of the game. There will be various restrictions of this. Basically, a position player will only be permitted to pitch in a “blowout” or an extra innings game.
- The PitchCom system will be used to enhance communication between pitchers and catchers, which is expected to speed up the time between pitches.
- Automatic runner at second base in extra innings. This controversial rule has been made permanent except in postseason games.
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 for 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 helps fuel their astronomic salaries. As for the fans, well, they will just have to grin and bear it.
Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn sagaciously 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.”
So, which teams will reach the World Series? Which team will win? Most of the “experts” that I have heard are predicting the Houston Astros will repeat as champions. I, of course, will root for the Dodgers. In any event, it’s a long season , and anything can happen. I think the TV networks would like to see a Dodgers-Yankees World Series. I think that would generate the most interest and the highest TV ratings. They used to meet on what seemed like a regular basis back in the 1950s, but they have not met since 1981.
What is your favorite OD memory? Please share.
Just to let you know, we in England call Baseball ‘Rounders’ and it’s a girls game.
Em was in her school team!!
Simon (Capt Black Sy)
Interesting. Thanks for your comment.