Ebullient On Opening Day

Opening Day (the real one, not the quasi-exhibition series between the New York Ricohs and the Tampa Bay Ricohs, or the made-for-TV hootenanny from Baltimore, or the first game for the stragglers in Florida, Arizona, Atlanta, and Seattle) is just now behind us. A marvelous day.

Now signs of spring were not exactly plentiful this weekend in the frozen wastes of the Great White North; when I left for work yesterday morning it was -7 degrees (19 for those of you to the south) and there had been rumors of snow all through the weekend. Still, the day dawned bright, blue and crystalline, and as I caught the glare of the sun off the Credit River as the train wended its way to Toronto, I saw signs of spring all over.

Globe and Mail sports reporter extraordinaire Stephen Brunt in line at the train station, buying his ticket, no doubt heading for the game. Two fans in head-to-toe Blue Jays regalia – the brand new jerseys and hats, already adorned with dozens of pins. Two young boys with their parents sitting just across from me (for what child takes an intercity train on a Monday school day, if not for the ballgame?). Sure enough, as I remove my headphones to catch their conversation, I find out they are headed to the museum and then to SkyDome.

For me, the start of the season means it is spring, atmospheric evidence be damned, and as long as Lake Ontario doesn’t have ice on it (nope, I am looking at it now – blue, whitecapped and marvelous) then spring is here and it’s time for my winter mood to evaporate like a Rangers lead.

Opening Day is the day for the fans. The one day that is about us, not about anything else, not about making money or chasing a batting title or preserving a lead in the pennant race or saving the manager’s job. Opening Day is the day we earn with five months of shovelling snow, fantasy drafts, and interminable college football games. Five months of nothing to watch at night, five months of no morning boxscores, five months of drudgery slogging through the forecasting magazines. If you didn’t enjoy it, even from afar, you have cheated yourself out of your just reward.

In fact, my ebullience on Opening Day is so profound that nothing can touch it… not a dreary day in the office with the ballpark beckoning in full sight of my window (my view onto SkyDome is my office’s greatest blessing and greatest curse), not an agonizing, neverending afternoon following the pitch-by-pitch on Sportsline as the Tigers pound Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays 7-0, not even a train ride home squeezed next to Canada’s fattest man and opposite the world’s least convincing transvestite. Lest you think I am joking, I assure you she was the spitting image of George Foster – possibly with a touch of Jeffrey Leonard around the chin and mouth. As for the rotund fellow, I am north of 200 myself but if this guy wasn’t well over twice my weight I’ll eat his lunch. I don’t mind, but I didn’t exactly have a lot of elbow room.

Basically, I was in the zone. I hope you were too, as it’s 364 days until the next Opening Day and if you don’t enjoy it you put in a long winter for nothing.

And nobody will have enjoyed yesterday as much as Tigers fans. A 7-0 pasting of a pretty good team? Shutting out a fine offense? Three home runs off the Cy Young winner? Leading the AL Central? Yeah, after last season, that’s a heckuva good day.

Well, Cubs fans, who finally got to erase the Alex Gonzalez/Steve Bartman/Mark Prior/Joe Borowski fiasco from their “last game” stack, might be happier. They beat the Reds 7-4, the pen was incredible (four innings, one hit, no walks, five strikeouts) and their new catcher got himself two hits.

Giants fans had a good day; not only did they win the game, but Barry Bonds edged to within one home run of Willie Mays, setting up a date with history tomorrow. Bonds had an incredible day — 3-3 with three RBIs, two runs scored, a walk, two doubles and the aforementioned home run — all off Roy Oswalt, the NL’s best currently active pitcher.

I am not going to get into Barry’s legal situation here — no one’s in the mood for a rant against governments using criminal investigations and prosecutions for political purposes. His baseball situation is, especially today, a lot more interesting and newsworthy. Is it possible that his troubles, focusing his anger and frustration in his performance, could make him more devastating than before? We know from experience that Bonds has great powers of concentration and focus. There is no telling what he may do if the world makes him mad. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Hank Aaron passing the Babe’s home run mark, and one wonders whether Aaron’s own mark might hold up against Barry Bonds on a mission to prove himself.

Padres fans in particular have a lot to feel happy about, as their up-and-coming team pasted the despised Dodgers 8-2, stranding 15 Dodger runners, turning three double plays and watching a healthy Phil Nevin pound a grand slam off Hideo Nomo, who’s due for an off year now that he’s on my fantasy team’s roster (of course, the same handicap didn’t seem to hurt Jason Johnson).

Royals fans, after a wonderful, improbable six-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth, are probably still celebrating. Luckily, they get until Wednesday at 1:10 to sleep it off – that weird Tuesday off day comes in handy when there’s partying to do.

Indians and Twins fans may have had the best day of all — extra baseball. The Twins finally prevailed 7-4 (on a three-run blast by Shannon Stewart — watch for the MVP talk to start again soon), but Ben Broussard had a terrific day at first base for Cleveland, going 4-for-4 and starting a 3-6-3 double play to boot. Unfortunately, he limped off the field in the 11th and was replaced by Lou Merloni. No word as this article went to press on whether he was seriously hurt.

Opening day is the real New Year’s Day (surely it’s not a coincidence that New Year’s used to fall at around this time), the first heartbeat that sets a rhythm that will beat for months and months, keeping time for everything else that happens in our lives. Baseball, if you let it, can be the foundation stone from which you can build everything else that’s worth having. At least until October — but it’s the fact that the season eventually ends that makes Opening Day possible once more.

Even for those of us who might not have normally enjoyed these games, Opening Day just can’t compare to other games on other days. White Sox fans may have choked in agony as their bullpen blew another lead against their division rivals (yes, Cliff Politte’s arm looks to be, essentially, cooked) but how can you get down when there are 161 more ballgames to look forward to? Blue Jays fans are so keyed up that despite seeing their team get pounded 7-0 by the worst team in baseball, one Jays fan likened the game to the launching of a ship by smashing a champagne bottle into it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Opening Day is the key that unlocks the door into summer. I hope you seize it, and keep it well.

Happy Baseball!

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