CINCINNATI–Opening day of the baseball season means more in Cincinnati than anywhere else. It is as close to being an official holiday as possible without being official. Banks are still open and mail is still delivered, but if you skip school or work for the Cincinnati Reds‘ first game of the season people understand. After all, they throw a parade here to welcome the sport back after winter hiatus.
Monday, team great George Foster was the Grand Marshal of the 94th Findley Market Opening Day Parade. It was also the 137th opening day in team history, although the first interleague opening, versus the American League Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, in Major League history. The day was sunny, if not particularly warm, with the first-pitch, 4:11-p.m. temperature at 47 degrees. The attendance of 43,168 set a Great American Ball Park record for a regular-season game.
You can’t play for the Reds very long before the tradition seeps in.
“It’s a holiday here,” said Cincinnati right-fielder Jay Bruce. “It’s very special. Regardless of who you’re playing, it’s still opening day in Cincinnati.”
Cincinnati is considered the birthplace of professional baseball, with the Cincinnati Red Stockings dating to 1869, and that’s where some of the attachment comes from. Throughout the 20th century, especially the first half of it, opening day in all big-league towns carried notable cache. What Cincinnati does to celebrate opening day represents more a lack of change than it does introduction of the new. In other words, the other cities in the sport used to be more like Cincinnati in embracing opening day, but let their traditions fall by the wayside.
One indicator of how Cincinnati still cares was the plaque sitting on Angels manager Mike Scioscia’s desk in the visiting manager’s office. It was dated and presented in “special appreciation.” It was hard to tell just what for exactly–showing up? Thanking him for being part of Cincinnati’s opening day? After all the Reds did need an opponent. Scioscia gazed at the plaque and said, “That’s pretty cool.” It’s possible that plaque was just taking note of the “first,” the first National League-American cross-pollinated opener.
Once upon a time there was only one first pitch before a game. Nowadays there can be up to three, it seems. On this day, however, the Reds kept the cap on and the official ceremonial first pitch was tossed by Joe Torre. The one-time star player and prominent manager most recently completed duties handling the United States team in the World Baseball Classic. Torre wore his USA uniform and the designated catcher of his pitch was Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who played for that squad. Torre is 72 and never was a pitcher, so he moved in from the mound a bit to take his toss.
Along the first base side and the third base side the Great American Ball Park field featured markings reading “Opening Day” and red, white and blue bunting. Real red, white and blue bunting hung from the front of the balcony levels.
Last year Todd Frazier was a rookie trying to make the team. He began the season as a hot pinch-hitter and a back-up to Joey Votto at first base and Scott Rolen at third base. At different times both Votto and Rolen got hurt and Frazier was the key fill-in. This year he is the Reds’ starting third baseman, so he brought an excited, glad-to-be-part-of-it outlook to opening day.
“It’s special,” Frazier said. “It’s like a mecca. It’s just another thing off the bucket list.”
While so many parts of the day were scripted, the actual play was not. The best part of opening day is when the home team wins and that did not happen. Despite all of the Reds’ careful planning, they lost to the Angels, 3-1. It took 13 innings and 4 hours and 45 minutes to complete the loss, too. After a long day of parading and partying, Reds fans ran out of energy before the players, leaving the ballpark in droves as the game went on. From a record-setting crowd at the start, the team may have set a record at the end for fewest fans left at the final out.
The only thing opening day was missing in Cincinnati was a happy ending.