Paul Payne: Opening Day Always A Source Of Hope For Baseball Fans

  • Wednesday, March 29, 2023
  • Paul Payne

Opening Day of baseball was a hallowed occasion during my childhood. Emerging from a winter of withdrawals, the dawn of a new season carried with it much more than the return of a game that I loved.

Opening Day meant renewed hope, the chance for redemption and a connection to past generations who fostered a love for the game and its time-honored traditions. Cautious optimism abounded that this would be the year our beloved team would finally challenge for the pennant.

For several decades the first game of the season traditionally took place with a day game in Cincinnati, coupled with a parade in the Queen City to celebrate the occasion. Part of that was a tribute to the Reds history as the oldest professional franchise, but it was also due to the fact that Cincinnati was the southernmost town in baseball for many years and would likely have less frigid weather.   

Many notable accomplishments occurred on Opening Day, the most impactful happening at Ebbets Field in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first Black player to play in the majors when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Atlanta’s Hank Aaron hit his 714th home run on Opening Day in Cincinnati in 1974, tying Babe Ruth’s mark for the most career home runs when he took Jack Billingham deep in his first at-bat of the season.  Cleveland’s Bob Feller, only 21 at the time, tossed the only no-hitter on Opening Day in 1940 with a 1-0 decision against the Chicago White Sox in 35-degree weather.

Only four players have hit three home runs on Opening Day, the most recent occurring in 2018 when the White Sox’ Matt Davidson slugged three bombs against the Kansas City Royals. Others to accomplish the feat were Detroit’s Dmitri Young in 2005, Tuffy Rhodes for the Cubs in 1994 and Toronto’s George Bell in 1988.

Rhodes trio of home runs was particularly unique in that all three came off New York Mets’ ace Dwight Gooden. He hit only five more home runs that season, finishing his career with 13 major league homers while slugging 464 round-trippers playing professionally in Japan.

The 2023 season commences on Thursday with the Braves playing at the Washington Nationals, bringing back memories of another Opening Day staple gone by the wayside. President William H. Taft threw out the ceremonial first pitch in 1910 before the Nationals’ opening game, a tradition that continued for a century until 2010 when President Barack Obama performed the feat for the current iteration of the Nationals.

With the return of baseball – minus the threat of labor disputes that delayed last year’s start - life once again seems complete. Sure, there’s plenty of changes to the national pastime to digest including a pitch clock, larger bases, and the elimination of defensive infield shifts. Unfortunately, the placement of a runner on second in extra innings returns again to the chagrin of baseball purists. But the leadership of baseball wants more action and shorter games, trying to remain relevant to an audience with an ever-decreasing attention span.

Last year the Atlanta Braves entered the season as presiding champions, a feeling that left Braves fans uncomfortably giddy. Accustomed to winters of discontent following another season of unmet expectations, Braves Country had not experienced this sensation in 27 years.

Despite Freddie Freeman’s exodus to Hollywood, the pieces seemed to be in place to go back-to-back. But after winning 101 games and claiming their fifth straight NL East title, the season ended with a resounding thud when Atlanta was throttled by the Phillies in four games in the division series.

After a season of being the hunted, Braves fans now find themselves back in familiar territory of hoping the stars align to end another season with a victory parade down Peachtree Street. Once again, a vital piece of the lineup opted for greener – as in money – pastures with shortstop Dansby Swanson’s move to the Cubs. While Matt Olson’s acquisition filled the void of Freeman’s departure at first base last year, a similar move was expected to replace Swanson given the abundance of big-name free agent shortstops available over the winter. But nothing materialized.

Braves fans are left to hope that the current roster has enough offensive firepower and healthy arms to challenge for another title. Olson has shown great promise with an incredible spring. Ozzie Albies is back and healthy. Austin Riley has emerged as a true super star. Ronald Acuna Jr. should be back at full strength after returning from knee surgery last year. Michael Harris II hopes to build on his surprising Rookie of the Year campaign. And the front office got Liberty Media ownership to unclench their tightwad fists long enough to add all-star catcher Sean Murphy in a trade with the A’s. Hopefully, Eddie Rosario’s corrected vision and Marcell Ozuna’s avoidance of off-field antics will allow both to return to their former production levels.

The starting pitching is solid, with Max Fried, phenom Spencer Strider and Kyle Wright anchoring the rotation along with veteran Charlie Morton. The bullpen returns most of the dependable arms that ranked the group among MLB’s best, and few Braves fans will miss their nightly nervous breakdown seeing Kenley Jansen shakily nailing down wins as the closer.

The core is there to give the Braves a chance to make another deep run into the playoffs. The Mets and Phillies have spent millions to dethrone Atlanta within the division, and don’t be surprised to see the World Series champion emerge from that group.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Braves fans were spoiled with the run of 13 division championships during the years of Chipper and Andruw Jones and the trio of Hall of Fame starters John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Despite that unprecedented string of success, the postseason failures were painful and only a single championship in 1995 soothed those years of disappointing finishes.

But at least Braves fans aren’t enduring the bleak outlook that plagued Atlanta during the ‘70s and ‘80s, a time when the Braves became “America’s Team” thanks to the SuperStation beaming the team into the nation’s households. Sure, there were flashes of hope, like when Atlanta opened the 1982 season with 13 straight wins.  But a late summer swoon where the Atlanta lost 19 of 21 games nearly cost the Braves, narrowly hanging onto the division crown before being swept by the Cardinals in the playoffs.

Other than that year, the Braves finished on the bottom two rungs of their division 13 of 18 seasons. During this miserable stretch, journeyman starter Rick Mahler seemed to give Braves fans false hope, starting the ’86 and ’87 seasons with the only Opening Day complete game shutouts any Braves pitcher hurled since the team moved from Milwaukee in 1966. In spite of his heroics, Mahler finished those seasons with a combined 22-31 record and the Braves fortunes faded quickly and were out of contention by the all-star break

Regardless of how this season evolves, nothing can rob me of the joy of Opening Day. It connects us with our childhood, back to a time when life seemed less complicated. If for no other reason, that’s great news, providing a needed distraction from the world around us. Baseball continues to be the soundtrack of my summers. The days of listening to Milo and Ernie on a transistor radio are long gone. But the essence of the game remains untarnished. Nine innings, 27 outs and no game clock.

Let’s celebrate that baseball is back and enjoy these next six months.

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