Opening Day offers a chance to dream that anything is possible
Opening Day is mostly meaningless when it comes to defining a season
President Barack Obama will throw out the first pitch in Washington, D.C.
Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson and Tuffy Rhodes are Opening Day heroes of the past
Part of the charm of Opening Day is that anything seems possible, including the idea that Emilio Bonifacio actually can hit. You might remember Bonifacio; baseball history always will. On a beautiful, sun-splashed day in Florida last year, the Marlins' Opening Day leadoff hitter smacked four hits, scored four runs, stole three bases and raced around the bases with the first Opening Day inside-the-park home run since one by Carl Yastrzemski in 1968.
Bonifacio never hit another home run in 2009 -- or much of anything else. He hit like it was, well, 1968. There were 155 players last year who were given enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. Bonifacio had the worst OPS of all of them.
Still, because Bonifacio had his day in the sun at the right time, Day 1, he earned his own corner in baseball history, along with such diverse Opening Day legends as Tuffy Rhodes (three homers on Opening Day 1994), Bob Feller (the only Opening Day no-hitter, in 1940) and Harry S Truman (the only ambidextrous presidential first pitches, in 1950, making him the Pat Venditte of presidents).
There are 2,430 major league regular season games scheduled this year. The 15 opening games -- one Sunday night, one Tuesday, but especially the 13 today that make this the traditional Opening Day -- occupy a special place in our consciousness. It is a day of lasting first impressions because, primed for baseball, we are at our most impressionable.
We've waited too long for this day -- since Shane Victorino grounded out against Mariano Rivera to end Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, we've had to grind through 151 days, not to mention what seemed like an equal amount of inches of snow and rain. To have baseball back restores us, emotionally and even physically. It's our vitamin D. It's the warmth and light we need after a long winter of Tiger Woods screen pages and that increasingly indoor sport (where it is played, watched and these days adjudicated) called NFL football. Opening Day is the vernal equinox of America.
It doesn't matter that Opening Day is rather meaningless when it comes to defining a season, as not only the false promise of Bonifacio proved last year. Also on Opening Day last year, CC Sabathia and the Yankees were shelled by the Orioles, the Pirates actually won a game (with five starters in their lineup who would later be traded) and the Mets were healthy. What matters is that baseball is here, which means the days are getting longer and warmer and the sheer volume of games that lie ahead hold immense possibilities that are limited only by our imagination. Just ask a Cubs fan -- again, for the 102nd time.
The fun gets underway when the Washington Nationals, scheduled for a 1:05 PM start, send a left-hander to the mound -- and then John Lannan will pitch against Philadelphia. President Barack Obama, hopefully with a little more mustard than he brought to the hill at the All-Star Game last year, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch, just as William Howard Taft did 100 years ago to begin the presidential tradition.
The other storylines to watch from Day 1 include Roy Halladay making his debut for the Phillies, Rangers manager Ron Washington being introduced to the home fans for the first time since he was known to have tested positive for cocaine, a superb pitching matchup between Justin Verlander of Detroit and Zack Greinke of Kansas City, and the historic comings and goings in Atlanta, where uber-rookie Jason Heyward makes his major league debut for the Braves and future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox manages his last Opening Day game for Atlanta.
Heyward's debut is the most eagerly anticipated Opening Day start since Albert Pujols in 2001 or Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989. Griffey is an Opening Day legend himself, having hit eight home runs on Opening Day, tying the record of Frank Robinson. This could be Griffey's last shot at breaking the record. And if Griffey does choose to retire after this season, 2010 might be remembered in a trivial way as the year the paths of Griffey and Heyward crossed.
Who knows what might become of Heyward, the 20-year-old kid with five tools, but baseball constantly connects generations in such subtle ways -- one star heading out as another heads in. For instance, on April 20, 1939 at Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig played in his last Opening Day game and Ted Williams played in his first. Of the 20 players who appeared in that game, half of them went to the Hall of Fame. The game was played in one hour and 47 minutes.
You won't find a day on the baseball calendar with more of an inverse relationship between real value and emotional value. It's not a day to start coming to conclusions, but we will. It's little more than half of one percent of the season, but it brings out presidents.
The good folks of Cleveland used to provide the most stunning visual proof of how much we invest in Opening Day. They would fill the cavernous old Municipal Stadium to sit through the cold and wind to see off their typically wretched Indians into another season, and then immediately abandon them. In 1973, for instance, fully 12 percent of the Indians' entire attendance for the season showed up on Opening Day: 74,420 people. For the remaining 80 home games the Indians played in front of an average of 6,759 fans. It was as if Opening Day was the fans' holy day of obligation, the Christmas mass of the baseball liturgical year.
Opening Day is such a part of Americana that it should be a national holiday -- but that would take away the mischievous fun of playing hooky from school or work to go to the ballgame. Like everything else of value these days, Opening Day has been cut up, bought and sold, as in Sunday night baseball and specially marked baseballs available at online retailers for $19.50.
The heart of the day, however, is genuine. It was Opening Day in 1947 that became the most important day in American sports: the day a 28-year-old black man named Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the day sport helped begin to move society forward. What is Opening Day, after all, but the day not just to dream, but also to believe, that anything is possible?
MLB Truth & Rumors