BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
30 March 2021
ORLANDO, FL – New York Yankees’ great Joe DiMaggio, who played 13 seasons during his Hall of Fame career (he missed three years serving in the military during World War II), once was asked about Opening Day, and if he ever tired of it.
“You always get a special kick on Opening Day, no matter how many you go through,” The Yankee Clipper replied. “You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
Something wonderful does happen – Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season.
Every sport has an opening day – by a season’s definition, it’s impossible not to have one. But, in baseball it’s Opening Day in capital letters. It is a day that assures us that spring finally has arrived as we emerge from months-long winter hibernation, and with it comes the promise of warm and sunny days of summer, holiday picnics and celebrations, beach outings, and vacations.
How can an opening kickoff in football or soccer or an opening tip in basketball possibly compare to the excited anticipation of hearing the crack of the bat on ball, or the pop of a pitcher’s fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt as the home plate umpire calls “Strike” on the season’s first pitch?
Opening Day in baseball is a day for adults to skip out early or call in sick from work. A day for kids to play hooky from school. A day filled with anticipation and hopes. A day when every team shares first place and every player is a candidate to have a career year or be an All-Star. A day filled with pageantry and parades. A day of teams looking resplendent in crisp new uniforms as players line both infield foul lines for pre-game introductions. A day when baseball cathedrals, having stood dormant in the winter, are freshly painted and spruced up, with immaculately manicured fields, and alive with activity.
Some even consider Opening Day to be a national holiday. In fact, in 2014 Budweiser sponsored a drive to make it so – though a cynic might wonder if that were more an attempt to market the company’s beers. But, then, maybe it should be. According to various reports, an estimated 22 million people age 21 and older will find some reason to skip out early or take a sick day from work or other commitments (not to mention millions of kids who ditch school) to attend Opening Day games or watch on TV. What businessman/fan among us hasn’t at least tried to time his lunch break to coincide with the first pitch – and then extend it for a few innings?
A Day for Firsts
There is a wonderful sense of naiveté that fuels the unbridled optimism of Opening Day in baseball fans. When every team starts even, when there is yet a losing pitcher to demonize, and no hitter has yet gone 0-for-4. When even the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates have not yet been mathematically eliminated from the pennant race.
It is a day for firsts: that first victory, first base hit, first strikeout, first defensive gem, and (hopefully) first home run; and in the stands, that first frankfurter, first beer, and first screams of “Are you blind?” at an umpire. Sometimes, even, that first game attended.
It is a day when a fan’s dreams of a pennant are as delicious as a hot dog and cold drink on a pleasant afternoon. OK, so Opening Day is not always warm. In cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Denver it can be a little frosty – on occasion, even snowy, with snowballs mixed in with curve balls.
Win a championship? Why not? It’s been a couple decades since Major League Baseball experienced a New England Patriots- or Golden State Warriors-like run on titles, as the NFL and NBA have. The last time a team won back-to-back World Series was the Yankees in 1999 and 2000. That also is last time a team claimed three consecutive Series, with New York also winning in 1998. The last three-peat winner before that was the Oakland A’s in 1972-74.
It is just one game in 162-game season, only the first step in a marathon. Still, on this day, there is cause to dream – whether Vegas odds makers list your team’s chances of winning the World Series at 7-to-2 or 200-to-1.
Hey, it happens. When the Boston Red Sox won in 2004, it was their first World Series title in 86 years. The Chicago Cubs broke a 108-year-old drought when they won in 2016. Those fans believed – and that’s optimism! So, go ahead and dream on this day.
Opening Day is exciting for the players as well. They’re ready for the season to begin – tired of playing the same teams over and over in meaningless Spring Training games, and of facing teammates in intra-squad games.
Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn participated in 23 Opening Day games. According to a BaseballHall.org article, in a 1972 interview the right-hander said, “An opener is not like any other game. There’s that little extra excitement, a faster beating of the heart. 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.”
“You can’t lose them all.” Hope, it seems, does spring eternal after all.
Perhaps nothing embodies the optimism on this day as kids roaming the stadium aisles or squirming in their seats, baseball gloves on, with visions of snagging a cherished foul ball. After last season’s coronavirus-truncated, empty-stadiums season, it will be wonderful to see.
Welcome Back, Fans
All opening days are special, but this year more so than others, and not just because the 2021 season opens on April 1 – April Fools Day. After a season in which the stands sat empty because of the coronavirus pandemic, the fans are back -- albeit in limited numbers (generally in the 20 to 33 percent of stadium capacity range.)
According to MLB, fans will be seated in “pods” – generally groups of two, four and six people, with each group separated from each other by at least six feet. In addition, fans will be required to wear masks whenever in the stadium, except for when occupying their seats. Plus, fans will not be allowed to sit in the first three rows (unless teams have installed Plexiglas shields separating fans and players), thus creating an additional barrier between players and fans.
How many fans will be able to attend each team’s games will depend on the respective cities, counties and states in which those clubs play. For instance, because of Canada’s continued COVID-19 travel restrictions between that country and the United States, the Toronto Blue Jays again will play their home games in the U.S., at least to start of the season. The Jays will begin with games at their spring training complex in Dunedin, FL. Last year, they played all home games in Buffalo, NY.
The fans’ return is not without some controversy, though. With the state’s approval, the Texas Rangers will allow 100 percent capacity at its new Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX, for the club’s April 5 home opener. While the team has promised strict and enforceable adherence to health and social distancing protocols, the move has more than a few health officials concerned.
Rangers’ president of business operations and COO Neil Leibman told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re fully confident that we can do this is in a responsible and safe way. There is so much pent-up demand for people wanting to go to events in a safe environment.
“They want to watch baseball, and they’d like to watch it in the new stadium with the roof open. So, I think with all the protocols that we’re following, we will be extremely responsible and provide a very comfortable environment for somebody to enjoy the game without worrying if we’re going to be a spreader event.”
Real Fans Replace Fakes
Major League Baseball hopes that by mid- or late summer, fans will be able to attend at full capacity at all stadiums throughout the league. But after a season in which fans were not allowed by attend regular-season games at all – which MLB says contributed significantly to its reported $3 billion in lost revenues – the league is pleased to have fans back in any numbers.
So, hopefully by late summer all those cardboard cutout and fake virtual fans that were prevalent last season will be gone. Some of those cardboard cutouts, with their oversized heads, were downright creepy, as were the fake virtual fans – computer-generated people that would react to plays, sometimes too soon or too late.
It will be good to replace artificial fans and piped-in crowd noise with real, passionate fans expressing heartfelt emotions. Though there is one subset of fans we’d be better off without: people who sit behind home plate, call friends on their cellphones and wave to the TV camera. Those people should be banned from baseball stadiums forever.
Psychologists say it’s good for us to gather and cheer, particularly after a year spent in self-isolation due to the coronavirus. Attending a game, they say, helps us satisfy general, basic psychological needs.
Notes Dr. Daniel Wann, a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who has studied the psychology of sports fans for more than three decades: "Fandom assists in our need to belong, our need for uniqueness and our meaning in life. We are social creatures. And by following a sports team, being interested in a specific sporting event, it allows us to feel that we fit in with those around us.”
As A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former Major League Baseball commissioner, once said, “(Baseball) is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” So true.
Fortunately for fans everywhere, baseball has not yet reached that broken-heart stage on Opening Day. On this day, optimism abounds. For on the first day of baseball season anything is possible – even in Pittsburgh.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.