Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Lost in Translation

For baseball fans, nothing compares to Opening Day.

On Opening Day, Red Sox and Cubs think across the country think, “Maybe this year, we’ll break the curse.” On Opening Day, the Marlins fans coming out of the woodwork in South Florida think, “This is our team. We did what no other team could do last season and we can do it again. We beat the Yankees.” On Opening Day, fans of the 27 other teams know that the slate has been wiped clean. The low batting averages are erased; the high ERAs are gone; even the lackluster production numbers fade into the statistical past.

But Opening Day is more than just the start to another season. Opening Day is the beginning of spring. It’s the start of another year, a year that runs from the first week in April to the last weekend in October. It’s time to break out the short sleeve shirts and the score pads and the transistor radios, and it’s time to get back to baseball. Opening Day means that summer will be here soon, and warm, humid evenings listening to home runs and pennant hopes disappear into the night on just over the horizon. If only we can get through those cold months of April and May.

Opening Day though is more than just symbolism. Opening Day is just that: one day where everything starts up again. It’s a span of 24 hours that nowadays starts the night before with that one game on ESPN, the game that ushers in Opening Day. The Day itself is pure baseball, afternoon games the way it used to be and a few West Coast games. On Opening Day, you skip school and work to go the ballpark. I should know; I’ve done it twice. I’ve even traveled down to Baltimore just to catch Opening Day. And then when your team’s game — just one of 162, don’t forget — is over, you can go back home and watch the rest of the day’s action. That’s what Opening Day is all about. Baseball is back, and it just has to remind what makes it so great.

This year, in grand fashion, Major League Baseball has managed to ruin Opening Day and all that it stands for. By volunteering to send its flagship franchise (or is this the franchise that causes all of its problems?) to Japan to face the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Opening Day has turned into Opening Groggy Few Hours Before Dawn. Or if you’re like me, maybe you just didn’t go to sleep. But either way you spin it, Opening Day is not supposed to happen at 5 a.m. Eastern Time.

Opening Day is not about Japan and it’s not about, as Yankees GM Brian Cashman put it, “what’s best for the bottom line.” If Major League Baseball were truly looking out for their own interests, Opening Day would be about the fans going to the ballpark and watching the games. There shouldn’t be an unsold seat at any stadium for Opening Day. If Major League Baseball were truly out to improve its popularity right here in the United States, Opening Day would be about accessibility. It would be about games being on TV at 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. (All Times Eastern) In the spirit of Opening Day, it would be about all 30 teams playing for the first time within 24 hours of each other.

It gets worse though. The other day on Major League Baseball’s Web site, a headline read: “Opening Day turns into Opening Week.” This is no longer the baseball purist’s version of Opening Day. In its efforts to improve its marketing image, MLB is trying to be more like basketball or hockey where there is no one day where all the teams play for the first time. The NHL and the NBA have staggered Opening Days, but there’s no sense of the start of the season being an Event (with a capitol E). One day in October, the hockey and basketball seasons just happen. In baseball, it happens with a fanfare. Not this year.

This year, it happens with way too much media coverage despite the fact that nearly the entire country, 350 million potential baseball fans, are asleep and miss Opening Day. They miss the curiosity of seeing Alex Rodriguez make his Yankee debut. They miss the magic of baseball: the fact that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are paying their entire team about what A-Rod makes in one year, can beat the Yankees, the mighty $184-million Yankees, on Opening Day.

Jason Giambi summed up the sentiments of baseball fans across the U.S. “It was like an in-between game. You could tell it was Opening Day; it was exciting. The crowd was great to play behind. But it was a little bit of a different Opening Day experience than everybody’s used to,” he said in an article in The New York Times.

Mike Mussina—and I won’t mince words, he was awful yesterday—said that jet lag was to blame for his lack of command. He was tired and achy from a really long plane flight. While the Devil Rays came out sharp, I’m sure none of them were thrilled to be playing a game 14 hours away from Spring Training. And can you really blame them? Opening Day, it seems, is now about pleasing the crowds in countries far from American ballparks where the action will be this entire summer. Opening Day is about marketing options and expanding the game past international borders.

To make matters worse, after Japan, the Yankees and Devil Rays return to Florida to play more Spring Training games. It’s almost as if Opening Day didn’t happen. If Opening Day isn’t going to mark the start of the season, there’s no point. It shouldn’t mark almost the end of Spring Training, but there are still two more exhibition games left.

Opening Day is about remembering that there are 161 games left. It’s about 30 teams and all of their fans remembering that. It’s about equality. It’s about the Devil Rays being in first place and the Yankees being in last place. But more than that, it’s about the other 15 teams in first place and the other 15 teams in last place. Opening Day should never be about one team (or two) being singled out at this point in the season. Opening Day is about equality. Every fan has a chance to walk away from the game saying, “We’re in first place.” And even if those dreams last just for a day, it’s still fun. Opening Day should not be about trips to Japan and games that count while jet lagged players slug it out to see who has more stamina.

Opening Day this year just didn’t quite have the right spirit. It wasn’t the rebirth of baseball that it’s supposed to be. The magic of Opening Day 2004 is gone. No matter what Major League Baseball says about the first full day of games on April 6, Opening Day has passed. There won’t be another one until 2005, and hopefully, Major League Baseball can regain that spirit, the spirit of Opening Day.

After yesterday’s game, a tired Mike Mussina said, “It didn’t feel like Opening Day to me.” You know what, Mike? I hear you. It didn’t feel like Opening Day to me either, and I can guarantee you, I’m not alone.

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