4/4: Opening Day

By John Sparks

Although there were two official games played in Japan last week, this week marks the day all die-hard baseball fans wait for during the long cold winter — Opening Day.

The opening day of the baseball season used to be celebrated in Cincinnati where the Reds were the oldest of the original professional baseball clubs.  In the nation’s capital the President of the United States would always throw out the first pitch.

But, did those two games played by the Mariners and A’s in Tokyo take a little away from this week.  Is Opening Day not quite so special anymore?

Some say yes.  Why?  Because, baseball is now a year-round sport for both participants and spectators.

For one thing, we now have the MLB Cable Channel 24/7.  Instead of having to watch basketball, hockey, golf, and those other secondary sports, those of us who are addicted to the national pastime have a fix.  Not only do we get to watch quite a few spring training games, we also get to watch one-hour television specials on each of the 30 professional clubs.  Add to that replays of classic games, televised baseball trivia games plus hours and hours of commentary and prognoses by a host of former players, general managers, and sports writers.  Does that make Opening Day and that first pitch just like any other day?  For those who say the answer is yes, I say get over it.  I love the MLB Channel.  The MLB Channel has filled a void from October to February for sure.  If nothing else, since my wife also loves baseball, the television gets a reprieve from HGTV.    But, the MLB Channel isn’t the only thing that has altered the importance of Opening Day.  Some say it’s Spring training.

There was a time when players gathered in Florida and later in Arizona to hone their skills and prepare for the upcoming season.  Many had spent the winter working their second jobs to support themselves and their families.  Others had put on a few pounds on the banquet circuit.  So by the second week in February, reporting to training camp not only served the purpose of getting back in shape and shedding some pounds, it also was a transitional time where you could still get in a round of golf or even bring your family to enjoy the sunshine and warmth.  It didn’t come with the grueling travel by train, bus, and later airplanes.  The 154 game (and later 162 game) schedule was still ahead.  So while there was the business of getting back in shape to be taken care of, there was still time to do this in an atmosphere of relaxation.  Fans also discovered it was a great time for them as well.  Not only was there the opportunity to watch some of their heroes, but they discovered players had time to mix and mingle.  For quite awhile spring training was one of the best kept secrets among die-hard fans.

That was then.  This is now.  It’s no longer a secret.  Spring training has morphed into big business.  Arizona and Florida have become travel hot spots in February and March for the die-hards with the time and resources to take off and see first-hand what the prospects of their teams hold for the upcoming season.  The once simple practice fields have been replaced by big moneymakers — small stadiums which can seat as many as 13,000.  The players are no longer as accessible.   The practice games are now televised multi-camera productions.  The irony is that the small number of fans who once befriended the players of another era might brag they knew the players better, but today’s fans know more ABOUT the players…all of them… including the young ones who will not make the roster but show promise for the future.  All because of television.  Three and one-half million fans attended springs training games last year.  Thousands more are now watching those games on television.

The naysayers may tell you that you’re not as hungry for it when you’re well fed.  But, it’s still baseball.  And there’s no such thing as bad baseball.

I still count the days from the last out of the World Series until the day pitchers and catchers are allowed to report.  And count me in when the wins and losses really matter.  I’ll be there with my hot dog and scorecard for that first pitch… and rejoice for another year of life, and another baseball season.

I’m excited the time has finally arrived.  It’s Opening Day.  Let’s play ball.