Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Opening Day

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"There is no sports event like Opening Day of baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League." - Author George Vecsey in A Year in the Sun (1989)

For over a century, baseball has been hailed above all other sports as America's National Pastime. And no other game during the regular one-hundred sixty-two (162) game season has been as eagerly anticipated as Opening Day. Just look at any die-hard baseball fan's calendar. Vacation? Holidays? Anniversaries? All are often forgotten and pale in comparison with the coveted first game of the season. Ask any fan what the "official" start of Spring is. Chances are their answer will be Opening Day. Much more than just an event, it is an experience.

Major League Baseball's first officially recognized franchise the Cincinnati Reds were historically awarded the privilege of "opening the Openers" and hosted the outings from 1876-1989. Only twice during this time (1877 and 1966) were they forced to debut on the road due to rain. Finally in 1990, the tradition was broken and the Reds were scheduled to appear as the visitors against the Houston Astros. Despite the prestige of being christened as baseball's opening act, Cincinnati has posted an average record of 50-52-1 that has been shadowed by the countless spectacles off the baseline including parades, fireworks, circus performances and the opening of new ballparks in 1884, 1894, 1912 and 2003.

A national event, Opening Day has also become a "political pitcher's" arena for U.S. Presidents to show their "stuff." On April 14, 1910, President, and baseball enthusiast, William Howard Taft attended the home opener in Washington D.C. Since then, eleven (11) sitting U.S. presidents have tossed out the season's ceremonial first pitch. One standout, Harry S. Truman, showcased his ambidextrous talent when he threw out balls with both his right and left arm in 1950.

Beyond Presidents, Opening Day has witnessed many other historical performances:
Ted Williams was a .449 hitter in openers, with three (3) home runs and fourteen (14) runs batted in during fourteen (14) games. "Teddy Ballgame" also boasted at least one (1) hit in every Opening Day game he appeared in. Williams' first Opening Day (April 20, 1939) was especially noteworthy as he faced the rival New York Yankees and Lou Gehrig, who was playing in his 2,123rd consecutive game.

Opening Day 1940 witnessed one of the most famous pitcher's duels as Cleveland ace Bob Feller and White Sox ace Lefty Grove went head-to-head. Despite sitting down every Indian he faced for 7 1/3 innings, Grove blinked first and surrendered a single to shortstop Cecil Travis. Feller remained in control and tossed the only Opening Day no-hitter in history.

Hammerin' Hank Aaron ignited the crowd at Riverfront Stadium on his first swing of the 1974 season when he tagged Cincinnati Reds for his 714th career home run to tie Babe Ruth on the all-time list.

Unfortunately, Opening Day has also been marred by riots and civil disobedience. At the start of the 1907 season, the New York Giants opened against the Phillies following a heavy snowstorm. In preparation for the game, groundskeepers were forced to shovel large drifts of snow onto the outer edges of the field in foul territory. After falling behind 3-0, the disappointed fans at the Polo Grounds began hurling snowballs onto the playing field, disrupting play. As the melee progressed, chaos ensued and fans began rushing onto the field to continue the snowball fight. After being pelted, Home plate umpire Bill Klem had enough and called a forfeit in favor of the Phillies.

Statistically speaking, how important is Opening Day to a team in regards to a championship season? The answer is not that much. The record for most consecutive Opening Day wins by a team is nine (9), shared by the St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets. Currently (through 2004) the longest winning streak on Opening Day is three W's, shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. Still every fan looks forward to starting off the season with a win.

Individual Opening Day stats however, speak volumes on the career accomplishments of a player. On the mound, Greg Maddux is a sure thing with a perfect 6-0 record in seven (7) career starts. Jimmy Key holds the record for most wins on Opening Day without a loss, with seven (7) and other perfect Opening Day hurlers include Wes Ferrell at 6-0, and Warneke and Rip Sewell with 5-0 scorecards.

At the plate, Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson hit eight (8) career / record setting home runs on the first day of the season, while Willie Mays and Eddie Mathews each belted seven (7) Opening Day round-trippers. Above all others Walter Johnson was perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever to don a uniform on Opening Day. In fourteen (14) season openers for the Washington Senators, Johnson hurled a record nine (9) shutouts with a nine and five (9-5) overall record. His two (2) most famous starts include a 3-0 masterpiece against the A's in 1910 and a 1-0 marathon victory while battling fifteen (15) innings against Philadelphia's Eddie Rommel.

Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn, who played for the Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, summed up the essence of Opening Day when he 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 'em all."

Regardless of the outcome, Opening Day still remains as the number one date in the hearts, minds (and on the calendars) of baseball fans everywhere. The official countdown begins after the last pitch of the World Series when we can't wait to hear those two magic words again, "Play Ball!"

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