I must say that spring is a special time of year for me. It doesn’t have to do with the weather warming up, the flora and fauna coming back to life, or opening the windows to let fresh air in. While those things are great, what it really comes down to is baseball. When baseball draws near, my lackluster interest in the winter sports almost totally sheds. My morning TV routine shifts from MSNBC to the MLB Network for my pre-work rituals. Dinner time now has the soundtrack of summer playing in the background, living in the Philadelphia area, what for so long was Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn has been replaced by Scott Franzke and Larry Anderson. Baseball starting is like finding that favorite t-shit at the bottom of your drawer and remembering all over again why you love it so much. It all comes to a head on Opening Day. A day that truly should be a national holiday, but until it is, my ritual of ditching all obligations to be in attendance remains. There’s something magical about Opening Day, it’s the essence of spring. Every team starts over. The World Champion Cubs have the same record as the Brewers. Hope, optimism, and possibilities run through all thirty fan bases.
My love for Opening Day has always been there, but like any long-term relationship, it has evolved over the years. Opening Day has been there for me in all the stages of my life, but this year it has pivoted in a way that is complete and permanent. Opening Day has changed for me forever, and I saw it in a way that I had never seen it before. Now I can no longer imagine seeing it any other way.
Much like the typical red-blooded American child, I played little league. I always loved the game. I collected baseball cards. I attended the occasional game when I was lucky enough for Dad to bring me. I can still remember playing “Super Action Baseball” on our old Colecovision with by best friend. While I loved baseball and looked forward to the first game of the season, I never really knew the true joy of it until 1993. I was in eighth grade, and that was the year I decided that I was going to devote that summer to following baseball closer than I ever have before. The coincidence that 1993 was the very year my Phillies broke a rather long pennant drought was not taken lightly by me. I saw it as a sign, and while baseball and I had been flirting for a long time, I fell head over heels in love. Despite crying myself to sleep after Joe Carter and the Blue Jays ended a magical ride, I couldn’t consume enough of America’s past time.
By the time I hit driving age, and completely memorized the movies The Natural and Major League, there was no keeping me from home openers. I would gladly skip school, be it High School or college, to drive to Veterans Stadium to catch the pomp and circumstance. In those days the Phillies had returned to AAA quality baseball and buying a walk up ticket for 10 bucks not only earned you admission, but an entire section all to yourself. These were the days of fan groups: The Wolf Pack, The Padilla Flotilla, Burrell’s Girls, and the Duck Pond. (Not to mention the un-actualized Mesa’s Messiahs and Thomas Perez’s Desi Arnazes BABALU!) It was an era of opening day brawls where “Bonner Sucks” and “Prep Sucks” filled the 700 Level just as much as “Mets Suck” chants. Admittedly, the Phillies were awful during this era, but I can honestly say that on every opening day, I was optimistic. I thought we had a chance. I saw lightning get caught in that 1993 bottle, and I thought it was going to happen again for sure. Looking back, opening day was as close as I was ever going to get to a pennant those years. These years coined the home opener term “constant disappointment” among my friends.
(1999 was also the year I learned that you can’t just walk up and buy tickets to any baseball game when we took a road trip to Fenway Park…… whoa! You actually have to buy tickets in ADVANCE in some cities?)
In 2004 the whole dynamic of Opening Day changed. I found myself being an adult by this time, and I no longer played hookie, I put in for vacation days. The Vet was closing and Citizen’s Bank Park was opening. Gone were the days of walk up tickets. While a new park and an improving team were seriously welcome, there was something about the Opening Day charm that was removed. Despite having a partial season ticket plan, I was unable to get an Opening Day ticket in 2004, I had to settle for game #2 of that season. It was the first home opener I had missed in quite some time. That seemed to change how I viewed Opening Day. Moving forward it was a battle to get tickets. After the World Series in 2008, it was easier to get into Willy Wonka’s factory.
Fun home opener memory from that era: In 2005 I remember how we booed the fact that Placido Polanco was starting at second over future favorite son, Chase Utley. Placido, I know your reading, we booed the decision, not you.
I’ll call the 2009-2016 era “the fall from grace.” I’m not sure if we flew too close to the sun or what, but the subsequent fall was tragic, nasty and ugly, and I don’t think I went to a single Opening Day game. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but life just happened. I had kids, I had jobs and I had limited vacation time. I looked down on the fans that suddenly couldn’t get enough of the town’s baseball team. Where were they when I was buying walk-up tickets and sitting in entire sections by myself? I got old, I didn’t like the crowds when the team was good, but I didn’t like the emptiness of the park when they weren’t. I was measuring effort, the cost for beer, and the traffic.
This year was the pivot. This year was magic. This year rekindled a love. It wasn’t that the Phillies had done anything drastic to improve the team. The crowd didn’t match some Goldilocks “just right” size for my enjoyment. There wasn’t anything added to the in-game experience, and the weather was blah. It was seeing a home opener through the eyes of my son that has changed the Opening Day dynamic forever. He’s been to baseball games before, but this this is his first year of little league, and this would be his first Home Opener. I didn’t have to think twice about pulling him out of school early to head down to the park on a Friday afternoon. Seeing his eyes light up and hearing the “whoooooaaaa” when he peeked out of the darkness of the concourse to see the bright green grass of the field in the sunshine was something I need to experience every year. He looked in awe at the fly over, at the gigantic flag unfurled in the outfield, at the fireworks that shot off during the National Anthem. We laughed at the Phanatic. We booed Bryce Harper (please sign with the Phillies) and Jayson Werth. We saw majestic homeruns and cheered for every Vince Velasquez punch out. We ate hot dogs and had ice cream out of a miniature helmet. The Phillies lost by a run, but he didn’t care as he happily fell asleep in the car on the way home. He doesn’t know the nuances of the game…yet. He doesn’t know the players…yet. He doesn’t know how to keep score…yet, but I’m going to be there when he does. Every. Single. Year.