Opening Day

Budweiser clydesdales

Photo: 5chw4r7z, used under Creative Commons

One of the surest signs of spring is opening day for Major League Baseball. From Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium, fans stream into their favorite team’s home field to watch the beginning of a new season and remember why it’s called the Great American Pastime. Football is dropping temperatures and shorter days. Basketball is indoors and, during March Madness, a disappointing end if your local teams all implode, assuming they made it to the dance at all. But baseball is warm weather, longer days, and the end of winter. For most of the US and Canada, that end hasn’t come soon enough.

In Cincinnati, however, Opening Day is a high holy day. Woe to the commissioner who schedules the Cincinnati Reds to open their season on the road. If you thought the city of Cleveland went ballistic when it lost the original Browns, you should hear some of the howls of agony when their beloved Reds open in another city. The Reds are the oldest franchise in the Major Leagues, indeed in all of professional baseball. They open at home, dammit. They have always (with few exceptions) opened at Redlands, at the late, lamented Crosley Field, at the legendary Riverfront Stadium, and now at Great American Ball Park. You can skip Mass on Christmas. You can eat meat on Friday during Lent. But Opening Day is sacred here.

This was a bit of culture shock to me. I arrived in Cincinnati from Cleveland in 1991 (by way of Holmes County of Amish Mafia fame. That’s another blog post.) Opening day often occurred on the road. And let’s face it. If you were an Indians fan before 1993, people had to take pity on you. My hometown team was in the midst of a thirty-plus-year playoff drought, and did not have the lovable loser aura of the Chicago Cubs. Municipal Stadium was a dump, and it’s only real purpose was to house the legendary original Cleveland Browns (and, unfortunately, to send John Elway to the Superbowl. Twice. At Cleveland’s expense.) Coming to Cincinnati?

Hey, the Big Red Machine was part of my childhood. Come on. Tommy Veryzer. Remember him? No? Well, you remembered his counterpart down on the Ohio River, Dave Concepcion, who had just retired only a couple years before I showed up. The Reds were in the National League, so any rivalry with the Indians was completely bullshit. Unlike the Yankees and Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, or the Dodgers and the Angels, the Tribe and the Reds do not play even remotely close to each other. Pittsburgh is closer to Cincinnati, and they, too, play in the National League, whereas the Indians are an AL team. I could adopt the Reds as my own without any guilt whatsoever. (Some West Siders have tried to argue with me about that. They lost every time.)

But Opening Day? My girlfriend at the time insisted I take a day off work to go see the game. In those days, when the Reds played in the old Riverfront Stadium, you could get Opening Day tickets right up to about three days before the game. But there was more to it than that. There was the Findlay Market Parade. I swear the only reason Marge Schott bought the Reds was to be in the Findlay Market Parade. It’s a ritual Cincinnatians have engaged in since native son William Howard Taft sat on the Supreme Court.

And downtown is always more alive during Opening Day than it is any other time of the year, even Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. The parade usually features past Reds legends – this year, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin, who combined to hold the shortstop position between them for thirty years. We’ve had three since Barry retired. – local celebrities, and various organizations. Keep your St. Patrick’s Day parades. We do St. Paddy’s in the bar with a nice pint o’Guiness Draft or some green Hudey. Opening Day is where it’s at in the Queen City.

There are more street musicians working on Opening Day, which amps up the festive atmosphere even more. Forget getting any work done. If you’re at work that day, you’re probably lonely, especially if, as I did for eleven years, you work downtown.

One of my most memorable Opening Days was spent at home. I had injured my foot at work and was ordered off of it for a week. I spent the day with my foot up, two six packs of beer next to me, with the Reds on WLWT (their old television home before Fox and ESPN took over televised baseball) and my hometown Tribe playing Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) for the first time. My girlfriend came home to find me blissfully drunk and just plain blissful. Both the Reds, under Davey Johnson, and the Tribe, powered by Denny Ramirez, won. Back then, the strike of 1994 had not yet happened, and I still loved baseball with an almost religious fervor.

I’ve been to four Opening Day games – three at Riverfront and the first game at Great American Ball Park. I don’t miss either Riverfront or Municipal Stadium, though Riverfront had an aura of tradition about it. Great American Ball Park is much more comfortable, even in the cheap seat, and you’re always close to the field. It compares quite nicely with its neighbor to the north, Progressive (Jacobs) Field. It’s actually a lot better than Turner Field, the only other Major League park I’ve been to. Mind you, the Jake and GABP are downtown stadiums surrounded by entertainment districts. The only reason to be anywhere near Turner Field is to go to Turner Field.

The most memorable game should have been the hometown debut of Ken Griffey, Jr., the legendary Seattle Mariner and son of Big Red Machine player Ken Griffey. That one got rained out, but GABP has always been worth the trip.

Most cities love baseball. Ask anyone in a fifty-mile radius of Manhattan about the Yankees or the Mets. No neutral opinions whatsoever. But in Cincinnati, it is a religion. Today, Nita and I will be watching the spectacle of the Opening Day Parade.

My Town Monday: Opening Day, 2011

It’s Opening Day once again, in Cincinnati, a High Holy Day slightly above Ash Wednesday. Which says a lot about this heavily Catholic town.

Like last year, the Reds are going back to the Big Red Machine for their Grand Marshal. Last year, it was Johnny Bench. This year, it’s going to be Joe Morgan, who played second base during the Reds’ famous run in the 1970’s.  Rather appropriate, since Joe has returned to the area with a car dealership and a position in the Reds’ front office.

As with every year, the parade begins at Findlay Market, the public market in Over-the-Rhine, makes it way southward to Fountain Square, over Ft. Washington Way (That’s I-71 through downtown for those of you just passing through), and into Great American Ball Park.

Opening Day has a strange effect on the town. While Marge Schott was embarrassing herself in the national press near the end of her tenure as Reds owner, she was a familiar and much-expected figure in the parade. Think of her as Peter Griffin’s dad. When Carl Lindner owned the team, the first President Bush made two appearances to throw out the first pitch, including the first game at Great American Ball Park (which I attended.)

The most disappointing Opening Day for me was Ken Griffey, Jr’s debut as a Red in the old Riverfront Stadium. Yes, it was great to see Junior come home to Cincinnati, but it also rained. And I got sick the next day, so I could neither go to work nor take the afternoon off to watch the rescheduled game.

For me, one of the most memorable Opening Days was a game I did not attend. In 1994, when the Reds still had most of the talent they had from the 1991 World Series win, my original hometown club, the Cleveland Indians, opened Jacobs Field. I was off work with a foot injury, and oh, damn! I had to stay home and watch baseball. This was back in the days when local TV stations still carried Major League Baseball.  (Yes, I know. WOR and WGN carry the Mets and the Cubs still. Those are exceptions.) In those days, WLWT, featuring an up-and-coming anchorman named Jerry Springer, carried the Reds. ESPN carried the Indians debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I sat with my swollen foot up and iced, a six pack of Killians at my side, flipping back and forth between my American League team and my National League team.

Last year’s Opening Day came with an ominous note. Manager Dusty Baker told the team that, if they didn’t win this year, owner Bob Castellini would clean house.  The Reds took the NL Central before falling to an unstoppable Philadelphia Phillies.  This year, there’s a feeling Cincinnati sports fans haven’t felt for a while, not since Brian Kelly coached the UC Bearcats.

Hope.

Opening Day this year comes early, March 31.  It’ll be chilly, but then that’s not unheard of for Opening Day.

Nor does it stop the fans from coming.

More at the My Town Monday blog.