Monday, April 1, 2013

Time for the Opening Act

I have to admit, every time Opening Day rolls around, I feel like a little kid.  I’ve always said that the first game of the baseball season should be considered a National Holiday.  Banks, Government offices, and yes, schools should be closed to honor the NATIONAL pastime.  

The first game of a baseball season always takes me back to my childhood in the Suburbs of Chicago.  Luckily in my grade school, teachers knew that the attention span of many of us in class was even lower than normal.  So they’d roll in the big 19-inch black and white TV and we would watch baseball instead of doing our multiplication tables.  I would say (even back then I was a bit of a smart aleck) we are still doing math, with that hit Bill Madlock is batting 1.000 for the season!

Baseball has such a special relationship with its fans.  The season is long, but it seems like the winter (even in San Diego) is longer. There’s an emptiness that can’t be filled by one football game a week, by a couple of NBA or NHL games, some NCAA games, no sir.   The only thing that can fill the void is the next season.

I have been so fortunate to have witnessed many openers, as a viewer/listener, spectator and broadcaster.  The game is so special to me and in any capacity I love the opener. 

As a kid, I couldn’t wait to see my heroes return from their long winter away from the game.  There was an air of anticipation, of feeling “this is the year” for my team. Like a kid told he would be going to Disneyland the next day, I couldn’t ever sleep the night before game one.  Baseball insomnia.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that affliction.

As a fan, there was the buzz in the stadium when the team is introduced and lines up on the foul line.  Some guys we know, some we don’t, some we expect a lot from, some we don’t, but the one thing every fan knows his or her team is tied for 1st place and has a chance to win it all!

I’ve been to only a couple of opening days as a fan.  The first was in 1985.  Growing up a Cubs fan, the ’85 season, was one of “healing” if you know what I mean, and I think you do.  I was with my best friend and his dad, my dad, and yes my High School English teacher.  Scratching your head?

My English teacher, who we’ll call Mr. Wilson to protect the guilty in this case, actually allowed my friend and I to miss the first four periods of school the day tickets went on sale.  The only catch, was to make sure he got a ticket as well.  My friend and I camped out at the local Sporting Goods store and when the metal cage rolled up at the ticket counter, we were among the first to buy ours.  Deciding on the bleachers, we were all set and Mr. Wilson was pleased with our decision and our tenacity. 

The game in 1985 was something else.  It was actually sunny which wasn’t always the case in April in Chicago.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, the color of the grass was so green, the park was ready for the upcoming season.  The red, white and blue bunting was hanging from the façade of the upper deck, seeing that I knew this was a special occasion.  It was, for goodness sake, Opening Day!  I watched as the Cubs beat the Pirates 2-1 on a Keith Moreland (yes he would later become a Padre player) 2 run homer off of Rick Rhoden in the 4th inning.  Rick Sutcliffe was the starter for the Cubs that day.  We had a blast.  It’s a game my dad and I still talk about because of the fun we had just hanging out. 

The other game I attended as a fan was the 1998 opener at Wrigley Field.  It was a moving day, the first without Harry Caray, who had passed away in February of ’98.  That was the day they first started having guest “conductors” for the 7th inning stretch.  Again, I was with my friend from the ’85 game, but this time, since I was 31, parents were not allowed.  I have to admit that sitting in the bleachers that game took on a different meaning than it did in 1985.  I was able to “enjoy” myself a little more, despite the 38 degree day.  I have to be honest, I know the Cubs won that game, but that’s about all I actually remember.  Remember I “enjoyed” myself.   My friends that were with me, still talk about that game as well. 

The next season, was my first as a broadcaster.   Opening day takes on new meaning when you’re behind the microphone.  It’s time to go to work.  Time to make the experience great for those that couldn’t be at the park for that special day.  We try to take those fans to the game with us, by describing the tremendous sights and sounds to them at home or in their cars.  That first one as an announcer is a blur to me.  I hosted the pre-game show, and interviewed countless players that day.   One stands out, but not for the reasons you might think.

Glenallen Hill was coming off a 3 for 4 performance the night before in the opening series at Pittsburgh, so I decided he was the target.   I couldn’t understand why at the moment, but Hill was dropping “F” bombs and other expletives during the taping of the interview.  I tried to get thru it, but Hill who is an imposing figure, wasn’t breaking ‘character’.  It wasn’t until I saw, my long time colleague Ron Santo, laughing and pointing, that I realized I had been “punked”.   Once we started for real, it hit me how special the home opener is to players.  Hill was eloquent when he talked about how players really get amped for the first game.  He told me that other than the first game of a playoff series, this was the biggest moment for a player.  Getting introduced to the crowd, running out to the foul line, seeing a packed house and all the energy in the stadium, was enough to overwhelm some players. 

Over the years, I have seen rookies making their first ever appearance in the big leagues, go out there on opening day.  I’ve witnessed pitchers making their first career opening day starts.  There have been some lopsided scores on opening day during my time as a fan and broadcaster.   Among the most memorable to me as a broadcaster:

2003 Cubs at Mets:  Cubs win 15-2, Corey Patterson 4x6, 2 HR, 7 RBI
2005 Cubs at Dbacks: Cubs win 16-6, Derek Lee 4x6, HR, 5 RBI
2007 Padres at SF: Padres win 7-0, Jake Peavy over Barry Zito, Bud Black’s 1st win
2010 Padres v. ATL: Padres win 17-2, Kyle Blanks 3x6, HR, 5 RBI, Corriea 1st opening day start.

So I guess what I’m saying is, cherish the day.  Realize what it means to players, coaches, broadcasters and yes for fans as well.  For some parts of the country it means the deep freeze of winter is over, for others it means their favorite team is back in business.   For me it means, time to get a suit pressed, it’s a tradition I started for myself back in 2004, wearing a suit on opening day (usually at home).  Yes, the day still has cache for me and it means as much to me know as it when I was a little boy.  After all baseball brings out the little boy or girl in all of us.  As Brad Pitt said in “Moneyball”, “it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball”…so true.

So as the new season approaches, sleep well, if you can. You’ll need your strength for the 162 game marathon we all love so much. 

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