While technically, there was a game that counted played last night. And while, double technically, there were two games that counted a week ago a half a world away, for most of the teams (including four of the teams in my beloved AL East) today marks the first day of regular season play for Major League Baseball.
The Yankees get an off day before kicking off their season against the Houston Astros tomorrow, but the slate for this evening features two hotly contested divisional matchups. The Red Sox’ poster pitcher, Jon Lester, will face off against a promising Baltimore hurler in Chris Tillman who looks to continue to build on a strong finish to last year and a nice spring. Both 2012 Cy Young winners, David Price and R.A. Dickey, will face off in Tampa Bay at the much bemoaned Tropicana Field, looking to prove very different things after two very different seasons in 2013. Price looks to prove that his playoff-hopeful Rays made the right choice in hanging onto him to try and contend this year, and Dickey looks to prove that promising signs toward the end of last year hold the key to fixing his struggles from the beginning of last season.
Baseball magic is in the air, a perfect record is within theoretical reach of all but two teams and there won’t be another unsullied moment in the season for most baseball fans as the crisp white snowfall of the offseason is trampled by the muddy tracks of reality.
Opening Day ceremonies and the games that follow them are something of a sports tradition. Tickets cost twice as much as a normal game and the players are often on incredibly different playing levels as all the players reach ‘midseason form’ at different rates. The games are often lopsided and the ceremonies can be embarassingly self-congratulatory, but it doesn’t matter; stadiums across the country will fill to their brims with a writing mass of drunk fans. As baseball returns, so with it comes summer. For many fans, myself heartily included, the first day of real baseball is the first day of Spring. Solstices be damned; the cold and lifeless winter ends the very instant that the first pitch hits the catcher’s mitt. With the leathery “thwack” of relevance, the innocent optimism of the offseason instantly dissipates as do all the ‘best shape of his life’ and ‘so-and-so added a new pitch’ storylines. The moment the umpire calls the first pitch, and every moment after that until the October Champions are crowned, matters. Every instant is irretrievable and every decision will be second- and third-guessed. The time for analysis and projection and optimism has ended, it’s time for the faith and fear and failure that defines Real, Actual Baseball.
I’m excited about baseball, and I go to a lot of games each year, but I won’t be attending my team’s home opener. I have, ordinarily, attended this event, but I’ve had it. While I see the first pitch and the game that comes next as the harbinger of the best part of my year, as something meaningful and enlightening and exciting, for a lot of more casual fans it’s a chance to go ring in the spring and get hammered. No local ink has been spilled yet on sensationalist headlines bemoaning the minor failings of every team, the casual fans in any given city have very little idea of what kind of chances their team realistically has, instead each team is capable of anything, and the home-opener crowds’ rowdiness can be rivalled only by those found in playoff baseball.
Last Home Opener, there were three fights within two sections of my seat, beers were rained down onto the decks below and the ushers’ radios crackled with requests to clean the vomit out of an immeasurable amount of bathroom stalls. The lineups were long and full of agitated and very drunk people who complained constantly about the price of basically everything. The atmosphere was electric, but the concern for the baseball being played was anything but. I understand this phenomenon; I will undoubtedly find more likeminded appreciation at any other game during the year, but part of me does wish that Opening Day could still feel like a baseball game.
We are the ones who have waited the cold, long winter for this. We sat and read the headlines throughout the offseason, practically salivating over our teams’ chances to sign this free-agent or trade for that player, and all the while the desire to watch the games get played boils beneath the surface like an unforgiving sea. It’s not baseball that will keep me from ringing in the Spring the way I truly want, it is only the Bros.
Believe me, Bros, I understand you. I get that the winter’s been long and this is the chance to ring it in with one of your first summer party days. I grant you your right to take hundreds of increasingly-drunk selfies and loudly express opinions that are, at best, outrageously out of date. I expect you to deride our team’s stars as overpaid and spend more time following your Instagram feed than the flow of the game. This may come off as very entitled, and certainly does not jibe well with the teams’ ever-present goal to put more butts in the seats, but when Opening Day becomes a big Facebook Event and the out-0f-towners come for their one game a year before they give up on the team after their first loss, it takes something away from the game for me. It feels like the epitome of style over substance. The people at the Home Opener are not all drunk, rowdy selfie-taking bros, but I’d forgive you if you’d been and thought it was. It’ll be like it always is; it’s like the playoffs without all the reasons to be pumped up. The first game should be like the first thaw, and the excitement of summer should take hold gradually as the season takes shape.
The infusion of young, hip fans into fanbases around the game has been it’s lifeblood the last decade, and few people could be more grateful for what all these butts in the seats have bought than I am, but when the Openers become perfect storms of casual fans and hat giveaways and crying children and their drunk parents, it can be difficult to achieve my own personal level of enjoyment. I just want to hear the crack of the bat on the ball and smell the hotdogs in the air, and as usual I’ll probably have to wait for the second game of the year lest I hear the cackle of the drunks and the smell of spilled beer instead.