“The sun came out today, we’re born again, there’s new grass on the field”
For baseball fans like me there are no two better words at this time of year than ‘Opening Day’. Those two words offer an assurance of springtime (no matter what the temperature actually is where you are located), and the hope that ‘this will be the year,’ no matter how poorly your team did the year before. Just like with the change of weather, the start of a new season of baseball brings a host of changes to the team you follow-new pitchers, new position players, and maybe even new coaches if the previous year was particularly dire. Opening Day promises a new start to your favorite team, year in and year out, whether they have been successful or bottom of the league dwellers most recently. Even the stubbornest and most bitter fans lamenting their teams chances even tend to have hope on Opening Day. If only for that one day!
Like most people, my love for the game was passed down to me from my youngest days by my parents, and especially by my father. Bronx born and raised as he was, I grew up and happily remain a Yankees fan through and through to this day. I doubt I would have had much choice in being anything other than a Yankees fan mind you. When I realize that Opening Day is drawing nearer though, there is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. For non-players like me (save for some unsuccessful attempts as a kid), the hats and jerseys come out of the closet again. The weathered glove is picked up and the ball stored within its webbing all winter gets its first touch of the year, fingers making the grip for fastballs, knuckleballs and curves. Usually at this time of year I pick up at least one book about baseball to re-immerse myself in the vernacular once again after a winter of discontent. Day by day starting in January you begin following the reports from spring training in the newspaper- who is looking sharp and who is struggling to maintain a spot. You read the predictions for both leagues-who has spent the most, who has a roster of aging superstars versus who has one of up and coming kids expected to do great things. Who has the best pitching staff and who is predicted to hit the most home runs.
To me a certain element of the excitement to baseball is about those kinds of predictions. It is also because they are so very often wrong, and the game becomes filled year to year with intangibles. That guy who couldn’t hit a fastball at all last season is now pouncing on them due to a subtle change in his stance. That pitcher who has only one or two good pitches in his repertoire has been working in the offseason on his changeup and now has more in his arsenal to choose from. The kid up from the minors who looks barely out of high school who looks poised to become a star player. The team that gets off to an abysmal start but gets hot just before the All Star Break and carries it all the way through to the playoffs. The beauty of the game of baseball is that those intangibles happen on a regular basis. Imagine being able to start your job off fresh like that every year. The mistakes you made, the things you wish you could do over again are all possible in baseball because although the players are part of a team, it is a sport made up of individual accomplishments.
The start of the season is exciting because like spring itself it builds on that element of renewal. Just as I get excited to see the first buds popping up on shrubs and trees this time of year, so too do I get excited for the first glimpse of the baseball field. The smooth infield dirt held in place by the white chalk lines delineating foul territory. The glistening white bases and the lush green grass cut in precise and varying patterns. The crisp and clean uniforms of the players. A clear blue sky at the stadium, flags blowing in the breeze as young and old take in the game. The calendar may say the first day of Spring is on a particular day, but for me, the first day of Spring is actually always baseball’s Opening Day.
Of course, Opening Day also brings back a flood of memories. A lifetime of players names, stats, and memorable plays. The beauty of sports is that those memories are often passed down from generation to generation, yet somehow with baseball, it seems more reachable. With baseball all you need is an understanding of the game and a good description to feel as if you were there. So the plays and World Series from my fathers era seemed approachable as part of that history. Other events in history you can read about in a book, but with baseball you can almost imagine being there witnessing the great events- The long overdue integration starting with Jackie Robinson, Bobby Thompson’s ‘Shot Heard Round The World’, the great Ted Williams and Stan ‘The Man’ Musial, Willie May’s famed catch in 1954, ‘dem bums’ (the Brooklyn Dodgers) winning the World Series in 1955. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford. Roger Maris’ 61 in ’61, the rise of the incomparable Hank Aaron. Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Satchel Paige, and the list goes on and on.
All of that older history became immersed with some of my own favorite baseball memories growing up- Carlton Fisk’s ‘waving’ his home run fair. Chris Chambliss’ walkoff home run in 1976. Bucky Dent’s over the Green Monster shot against the Red Sox in the tiebreaker playoff game in 1978. Reggie Jackson being crowned Mr. October. Mookie Wilson’s blooper under the legs of Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series. Kirk Gibson’s painful run around the bases home run in the 1988 Series. George Brett and the Pine Tar Incident. These and hundreds of more events became part of my own personal baseball lore that I will pass down myself. Baseball has countless such memories. Though they are usually most memorable come playoff time, in the course of a season, there are dozens of such events that occur for each team. The cycle continues, and those plays that make the highlight reel are remembered for years to come by fans. We all have our own favorites, but no matter the team, and no matter what year, it all starts off on Opening Day.
Those of you who have been reading my posts for awhile know that I tend to write about artists and songs slightly below the radar. I thought about featuring a song here about baseball along those lines, but I realized that this was one of those times where I really could not do better than an obvious choice. John Fogerty needs no introduction of course. As the lead singer, songwriter, and driving force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival he created some memorable music. On his classic 1985 album Centerfield he not only continued in that vein, but also managed to write one of the most classic baseball songs of all time with the title track. Replete with baseball references such as- “I spent some time in the Mudville Nine”, “So say hey Willie & tell the Cobb, & Joe DiMaggio” not to mention a nod to Chuck Berry’s song Brown Eyed Handsome Man. It is a song heard in ballparks throughout the year, but it always gets me ready for the season when I hear it at this time of year.
My own favorite baseball memory you may ask? Well, there are many, but one in particular stands out. In 1996 I consider myself beyond lucky to have witnessed first hand the start of a new NY Yankees dominance over the next several years. Somehow my father had acquired tickets for Game 6 of the World Series that year and we went together. It had been a tough series for the Yankees against the Atlanta Braves that year, losing the first two games of the series at home. The Yankees came back to win Game 3, then tied the series after an epic Game 4. One more game in Atlanta, and the series had shifted to the Yankees being up 3 games to 2 in a best of 7 series. The stage was set in New York for a classic Game 6. The Yankees sent the steely veteran Jimmy Key to the mound against the Braves ace Greg Maddux. The Yankees jumped out to an early 3 nothing lead. By the bottom of the 9th with Yankees closer John Wetteland on the mound he was holding onto a 3-2 lead after giving up a few hits. Tensions were high, and as my dad and I were standing (as everyone else was) down the third base line every nuance, and every pitch was felt throughout the crowd. Mark Lemke drew a full 3-2 count and eventually he fouled one off down the third base line towards us. Charlie Hayes, the Yankees third baseman made a valiant effort diving into the Braves dugout for the ball but it got away from him. Collectively the entire stadium took a deep breath it felt like. Wetteland dealt another pitch. Lemke swung and again it veered down the third base line, but not so deep this time. I can still picture the sight of Hayes getting a bead on it, waving off his teammates, just a slight glimpse of the Yankees pinstripe uniform in view before becoming obscured by the fans in front of me, whose wild cheers assured me that Hayes had made the catch. As Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling is famously known for saying. Ball game over. World Series over. The Yankees win. Thuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu..Yankees WIN!
It was my single greatest moment witnessed both as a Yankees fan, and as a baseball fan. I may be devoted to the Yankees, but I love the game of baseball, and I will happily watch any game I can find, be it a Tuesday night game between the Brewers and the Padres, or a classic Yankees/Red Sox matchup. It is all great to me. And that is baseball. Games change direction in the blink of an eye, losing teams becoming winning teams and vice versa. No matter what the predictions, and no matter how much money was spent on the team, it all begins on Opening Day. And as the Yankees take the field On Opening Day for the first game of a long season, you better believe I will be following along, just like my dad has always done, and like generations have done before. The beauty of baseball is in those memories, and the dreams of being a part of it all, just like John Fogerty describes in his song. Put me in coach, I’m ready to play!
What is your favorite baseball memory?
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF GEORGE STEVEN HOWE
Centerfield-Written By John Fogerty
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