You know Easter and Vesak and Samhain and Diwalli,
MLK, Purim and Christmas with holly.
But I would trade them all,
For my most favorite holiday of all…
Today is Opening Day.
The first day of the Major League Baseball season.
It is a day of tradition, ritual, excitement, and anxiety.
And, above all else, it is a day of hope.
Every team starts with a blank slate, no wins, no losses, with the World Series open to anyone other than the Mets or the Astros. It is the first day you get to see your team in its entirety, with your best pitcher on the mound and the strongest (healthy) position players in the field. It is the day your faith in your team is renewed, convinced that this is THE year. Every year is THE year.
Until it’s not.
Today is Game #1 of a 162 game season. The marathon begins.
I’m not here to espouse the merits of baseball. Some people don’t love it. That’s okay. I mean, they’re dirty communist ignorant shit-pigs, but it’s still okay. Most baseball fans, at least those of the hardcore variety, feel a deep-seeded love of the game that they themselves struggle to explain. I won’t go so far as to call it a religion, although others have. It certainly feels like it at times. And, if it is, then today is its High Holy Day.
How to I celebrate this most hallowed of days?
You see, I have a team. I’m not a believer in rooting for multiple clubs. My family and friends are mostly Atlanta Braves fans and, while I find myself pulling for them for their sakes, I am definitely not a fan. At best I can be called a “Braves sympathizer”.
My team has been so as long as I can remember. I grew up in eastern Ohio, on the opposite side of the state from the Queen City, but my father and maternal grandfather passed down to me (baseball team loyalty is usually either hereditary or geographical in its cause) an allegiance to the Cincinnati Reds that I will take with me to the grave.
Anyone who knows me in real life knows this. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows this. During the season, it is the single biggest thing on my mind outside of work and family, although sometimes it does surpass those. It certainly does today.
Because today is Opening Day. I do not work on Opening Day. I do not venture outside of the house. I only leave the couch to get food or go to the bathroom. I don’t answer phone calls. I make no attempt to be productive. I am all-consumed by the return of my favorite sport.
Holy shit. It’s Opening Day.
I’m am not what you would call a superstitious man. That implies believing in supernatural forces and I really don’t do that. But baseball players and fans are very superstitious and I am more than happy to play along. Therefore, I do have Opening Day traditions that I follow every year. Like hiding dyed eggs or lighting the menorah, my holiday isn’t complete without the following:
GEAR. Before the beginning of every season I buy a new Reds hat. I wear it for the first time on Opening Day. I usually go for a throwback cap, something from the Cooperstown Collection, a replica based on what teams wore in the past. I’ve worn caps originating anywhere from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. This year, though, I’ve gone with a 2014 On-Field Road Cap (size 7 3/8). It’s the same hat the players will be wearing when they travel. Some of my friends have their “lucky cap” that they wear every year, no matter what disgusting state it is in, but to me each year brings with it a new team and deserves a new cap. Until, of course, the Reds when the World Series, then that year’s cap will become my lucky cap for life. I try to ride out each hat for the full season but have been known to switch at the All-Star Break if I don’t like the way my team played the first half.
Also on Opening Day, I string up my best pair of Chucks with bright red laces from Journeys. I only wear them during the season, returning to boring old white after the Reds are no longer in contention.
The shirt above is not new; I got it last year. But it is of my all-time favorite Red, the great Eric Davis, who, if it weren’t for multiple injuries that sidetracked his career, would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame. I love this shirt. And I refuse to think it brings bad luck.
Not pictured: my socks and boxer briefs. You can probably guess what color they are, too.
FOOD. I don’t really like hot dogs. They’re pretty gross. Deformed little imitators of their much grander cousin, the sausage. I avoid them at all costs, except for 5-6 days a year: The Fourth of July, the 3-4 Reds games I get to see live every season living out here on the West Coast, and Opening Day. Last night I went to Safeway and got a pack of hot dogs, a pack of buns, a white onion, a jar of relish, and made sure I was stocked up on ketchup and plain yellow mustard. Throughout the day, I will throw hotdogs on the Foreman, dress them up, and devour them. They will be my breakfast, lunch, and probably dinner. At the end of the day I will feel gross and bloated. But the smell of them in the air, the combination of mustard and onions and bread and relish and nitrates in my mouth, it all makes me feel very baseball-y.
Crackerjacks, despite being sung about during every Seventh Inning Stretch, aren’t as easy to find as you’d think. Which is okay because I’m not sure I like them either. If I can get hold of a box, I do. If not, I’m more than satisfied to rely on a big bag of whole peanuts to snack on between dogs.
TOTEMS. Think of this as my nativity scene. I bring out my figures of Reds greats Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench as well as current-Red superstar Joey Votto, alongside a few other useless trinkets. My printed-autograph ball from the mid-eighties team. A Votto bobblehead. Pez dispenser. Mr. Potato Red. And a jar of home plate dirt from last year’s season opener that my cousin Phil sent me. I lay these things out on my entertainment center, my coffee table. Just for the day. Then they go back to where they belong, displayed in my office.
I also buy baseball cards. I’m not a collector of them, at least not anymore, but before and throughout the season I buy a pack here and there, hoping to find a Red or two in them. This year so far I’ve gotten really lucky with my haul: seven Reds before the season has even started. I’ll still grab a few more packs, though, before the year is done. I use the non-Reds cards as bookmarks and other sundry things, unless they are members of the St. Louis Cardinals. In that case, they must be destroyed.
(If anyone has a Topps 2014 Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips, or Mat Latos, I’ll gladly take them off your hands.)
INPUT. (JOHNNY-5 VOICE:) IN-PUUUUUT. This is not really an Opening Day thing but a Whole Season Thing. The ways I prefer to experience baseball are ranked as followed: 1) At the Ballpark 2) On the Radio 3) On TV 4) Digital Play-by-Play. The MLB At Bat app for iOS and Android is my best friend during the season. Twenty bucks for the whole season, both regular and post, it’s a one-stop location for everything MLB. News, scores, standing, stats, schedules, video highlights, a graphical pitch-by-pitch tracker that takes you through every play of the game in real-time. But far and away my favorite function of At Bat is the ability to listen to the radio broadcast of every game, every day, using either the home or away broadcasts.
This is huge for me. I live over 2000 miles away from my team’s home ballpark. I only get to see them in person when they come to California (I’ve seen them at San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco). I rarely get them on television and I obviously don’t get the local radio broadcasts. But with At Bat, I do. I can hear Cincinnati broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Jeff Brantley call all 162 games of the year; I listen to 120 of them at least. It makes me feel like I’m there. Part of the fan base. And, like I said above, I’d rather listen to a baseball game than watch it on TV. I’m not sure why that is but it just is. Maybe it’s the purist in me. Faux nostalgia for a time in which I never lived. I don’t know. But it really is the best.
Not to say I don’t want to see video. The MLB app provides video highlights as the game is being played and I do watch the Reds on the rare occasion they’re on national TV (although I usually mute the game and listen to Cincinnati radio instead). And then there’s the MLB Network. There are three channels in my cable package that I consciously pay more money to have: HBO, Showtime, and the MLB Network. I generally dislike sports media these days, “The Dan Patrick Show” excluded, and sometimes the MLB Network flirts dangerously close to the ‘men yelling at each other about useless shit’ model that has made ESPN unwatchable. But during “MLB Tonight”, their biggest show that runs in prime time nearly every evening, it’s pure baseball bliss. A combination of journalists and former ballplayers talk you through the day’s slate of games. Not entirely in retrospective highlights, but with live look-ins to all of the games currently being played. I may only have one team that I cheer for, but I am interested in all of them. I don’t just love Reds baseball; I love all baseball. I’m addicted to it. And “MLB Tonight” mainlines it into my veins every night to feed the monkey.
I don’t think any of these things -the clothes, the food, the totems- actually help the Reds win games. Again, I’m only pretending to be superstitious. But it’s fun to pretend and imagine that I actually have a spiritual hand in the fate of my team. Either way, like the traditions and rituals of most holidays, I find comfort and peace in the familiarity. Buying a new cap means BASEBALL IS COMING. Downloading the MLB app onto my phone means BASEBALL IS COMING. Biting into a gross but full-loaded hotdog means BASEBALL IS BACK.
If you don’t share my love of baseball, I’m sure this all seems utterly ridiculous.
But I know a few friends of mine will understand completely.
So at the very moment this is posting, Monday March 31st, at 1:10 pm, PST, the first pitch of the Reds’ season is being thrown in their home, Great American Ballpark, against the evil, foul, disgusting, dirty baby-eaters known as the St. Louis Cardinals. Will the Redlegs make it to the Series this year? Just like with every team, the odds are against it. Will they run away with their division or will they be out of it by the All Star Break? Or are we in for a crazy last couple weeks where every game, every out, every pitch is a factor in their survival? Who will break out as a star? Whose skills will start to decline? Will the pitching staff stay healthy? Does our new manager have what it takes?
Outside of the Reds, what other drama will the season bring? Will the Sox return strong after their World Series win? Will the Yankees rise to the challenge and send their Captain off with one last ring? Will teams like Washington, Anaheim and, yes, Cincinnati, bounce back after disappointing years and play like the contenders that so many think they should be? How many no-hitters will we see? Will there be a perfect game?
I have no damn idea.
Some things are about the journey. Some things are about the destination.
For me, the epic marathon that is the Major League Baseball season is equally both.
And I can’t believe it’s finally here.
Now. Let’s play some fucking ball.