It’s baseball Opening Day, a cause for celebration among hardcore fans.
Despite the fact that MLB officially started the season last week with a couple of games in Australia – natch, makes perfect sense – this truly is Opening Day: the launch of another 162-game grind that stretches through spring, summer and fall, providing endless storylines for seven months.
There’s a lot of romance associated with baseball generally and Opening Day in particular. Most of it is garbage. Yes, the field theoretically extends infinitely along its foul lines, making all the world a baseball diamond. But come on George Will, how relevant is that? And yes, an Iowa corn field cum baseball diamond is a beautiful thing to behold, at least viewed through a Hollywood lens.
The truth is people who get excited about Opening Day rarely are thinking of W.P. Kinsella and his poetic, fanciful spin on the game. Rather, they are dipping into a sparkling well of memories. That those memories coincide with the arrival of spring only heightens the enjoyment of reminiscing about games and seasons gone by.
For me, it’s all about listening to Toronto Blue Jays games, late at night, from a radio tucked under my pillow long after my parents had sent me to bed. A friend took me to see a Jays game in 1977, the team’s inaugural year. I recall vividly the wonder I felt walking out of the tunnel at Exhibition Stadium to see the field bathed in light, ringed by 40,000 fans.
I didn’t know what a dump Exhibition Stadium was; didn’t realize the Jays were awful, as most expansion teams are; didn’t know many of the rules, actually. But none of that mattered. Beginning that night, I was a Blue Jays fan. I listened to their games nearly every day. I watched on TV too, although TV games were the exception, not the rule back then. And every spring I got the official Shoppers Drug Mart Blue Jays calendar – not a tiny fold-up schedule of games that would fit into your pocket, oh no. This was a poster-sized layout of the entire season, with little boxes where I could record all the scores, which I did with manic dedication and a rather basic color scheme.
Using a pen that included multiple ink colors selected with a switch at the top, I recorded winning scores in blue and losing scores in red. I would also make short notations if a player had done something exceptional that day. When Otto Velez hit four home runs in a doubleheader, I made a note of that, possibly the only time Otto the Swatto’s name appeared on my calendar.
In the mid-80s, the Jays started to play well and were in contention for the playoffs almost every year. For a team starting from nothing in 1977, that was a remarkable achievement. That achievement was lost on me at the time but has been brought home with painful clarity over the last two decades as the Jays have failed to make, or even contend for, the playoffs – playoffs, I might add, that have expanded several times to include more and more teams.
In 90 minutes, the Jays will kick off their 38th season with a game in Tampa, the only modern ballpark that makes long-forgotten Exhibition Stadium look like an Iowa corn field. I hope they win, but I expect them to lose. I share that pessimism with fans of teams that have been around for a lot more than 38 seasons. The Cubs, famously, haven’t won the World Series since 1908. That’s a lot of suffering, but the truth is once a couple of generations of fans have watched their team lose, they share most of the feelings of fans whose teams have been losing for much longer than that.
It’s often said that on Opening Day, every team has an equal chance to win a pennant, to get into the playoffs and maybe get into the World Series. That, too, is garbage. The Houston Astros are 250/1 long shots to win the World Series this year. It simply won’t happen. So no, not every team has a chance to win this year, but the thing about baseball is that fans will watch anyway. They cheer for their team for seven months, even if they are out of contention for more than half the season – even if the goal quickly becomes trying to avoid losing 100 games.
That’s not true of other sports, at least not to the same degree. If there’s romance in baseball, that’s where it resides: in the dedication of fans to follow their team no matter how bad it is, no matter how slim are its chances to win.
Before they take the field for game #1, the Jays are 25/1 to win the World Series. That’s in the top half of the list of teams. I don’t think it will happen, but I can’t help myself. I’m hopeful. And that – my illogical but rock solid hope -- is why baseball is so great.