Opening Day has become more of an event for me than Christmas. I look forward to the first day of the baseball season more than any other day of the year. The nation is baseball starved and there’s proof when PNC Park in Pittsburgh is near capacity. Rarely do I attend the first game of the year as the parks are usually filled and it seems to be more about the event than the game.
Whether at the park or in front of the TV and/or radio, I have some great Opening Day memories.
For the second time in four years, I was watching the defending World Series champs. The Twins were defending the greatest World Series ever played. No, it wasn’t officially Opening Day, but it was the home opener for Minnesota and I was at the dome.
I’d learned from the movie Major League that you could tell how well a team would do by the first at bat of the season. Once again, it wasn’t the first at bat, but it was the first at home. Shane Mack led off for the Twins against the Rangers as I sat in the nasty limited-view seats in the upper deck of right field. Mack took Bobby Witt deep over the centerfield wall and my 13-year old mind was convinced the Twins would repeat as World Series champs. Minnesota would finish second in the AL West with 90 wins and the Blue Jays would take the trophy that season. However, the Twins did beat Texas 7-1 thanks to Mack and the pitching of Kevin Tapani.
I’m always baseball starved on Opening Day, but 1996 was much worse than other years. Following the strike of 1994 and early 1995, I choose to boycott all Major League games for one season. In 1995 the most I did was follow the standings. I didn’t watch any games and I definitely didn’t attend any. When 1996 rolled around, I was about to graduate high school and, for the first time, had a reliable car and the freedom to use it.
The Twins played a day game against the Tigers on April 1, Opening Day. I skipped out of school early (which I did a lot in those last few months) to attend the game with my friend Steve in my 1991 Honda Civic.
In 1996, I got back together with my wife after a one-year separation. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. Or, if you will, in 1996 I got back off the wagon. I fulfilled my old addiction and it felt better than ever.
There was also the memory of the one game played the night before between the White Sox and Mariners. Others in the stadium were talking about it also. The Mariners won 3-2 in 12 innings. The game was won when some rookie batting ninth for Seattle named Alex Rodriguez singled in the winning run.
The Twins won 8-6 thanks to Matt Lawton’s two RBI. At the time, Twins fans thought Lawton would be a temporary replacement for Kirby Puckett until he figured out his eye problem. A second-year pitcher named Brad Radke got the win.
At some point during Opening Day of 1998 while attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout I must have went to a class or two, but I don’t remember any. What I do remember is watching baseball games on ESPN from noon until midnight. My friend Leviathon and I were watching every moment we could while recounting old baseball names from the eighties we’d forgotten that also made us giggle like Ron Kittle, Rob Deer and Dave Dravecky.
We were getting hungry while watching the Mariners – Indians game. Would we have enough time to jet to the student center to grab a sub before Ken Griffey Jr. came back to the plate? Yes, if we ran. We did. As I unlocked my dorm room door I could hear John Miller on the TV behind it, “Ken Griffey Jr. has homered to put the Mariners ahead!” “Damn it!” said I. The only times you don’t want a slugger like Griffey to homer is when you have the opportunity to watch, but don’t.
What other games we watched is a mystery 12 years later, but there was the thought that I’d watched 12 hours of baseball when I shut the TV off at midnight.
After the missed Griffey home run the year before, I’d learned never to miss an at bat – order in. In my second year at UW-Stout, I learned never to fall asleep – drink coffee.
At the tail end of another 12-hour baseball marathon, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks went into extra innings. With no sidekick to keep me up (Leviathon was exiled to UW-Eau Claire), only the voice of ESPN’s John Miller would wake me up. “Way back! Way back! Gone! Raul Mondesi has won it for the Dodgers!” My eyes opened just as the ball hit the fans. It was a two-run home run to give Mondesi six RBI for the evening. Lesson No. 2 for Opening Day – don’t fall asleep.
The first game of the season was to be played in Washington D.C. in the brand new Nationals Park. My girlfriend Kate and I hit the Mousetrap bar in Eau Claire with about five unopened packs of baseball cards to add to the festivities. The Braves were in the nation’s capital and the president threw out the first pitch. I was never a big fan of George W. Bush, but I will say the man could throw out a first pitch better than any other president.
Nationals Park looked beautiful, spirits were high in the low-lit bar for the new season, conversation rarely strayed from the great game and I was happy to find an Ichiro card.
Baseball’s a social sport. Many who don’t know the game well enough feel I need silence while watching a game as if it’s a golf match and I’m teeing off. This is not so. I encourage conversation while the game is going on, just don’t expect any eye contact on my part. As the game reached the bottom of the ninth inning, the conversation continued between myself, Kate and some friends who had gathered. The conversation stopped moments after Ryan Zimmerman connected and immediately after I announced what was happening. The Nat’s third baseman had homered just over the centerfield wall to give Washington the 3-2 win and the hometown fans something to cheer about. I’m happy to share this memory, but I’m keeping my Ichiro card.
The Twins are in Los Angeles in the late evening and my favorite bar is closed Mondays. Research needs to be done for the ultimate setting to watch baseball on the most anticipated day of the year. Poor teams will look great and fans will contemplate the possibilities. A large-market east coast team will play poorly and fans and critics alike will jump the gun on what was supposed to be a great year. Game No. 1 is just as important, or unimportant, as Game No. 162 … or Game 163.