Baseball's Opening Day Retains Its Rituals

An observer of nearly 50 years of America's pastime reflects on what gives the start of the new season its emotional grip on fans

MAJOR league baseball - buffeted by labor, financial, and drug problems, and less affordable each year for the average family - still retains its magic in at least one key area.

It's called Opening Day, and it is as much a tradition as the arrival of the first East Coast crocus, or all the fuss the citizens of Punxutawney, Pa., generate over their groundhog.

Meanwhile George Steinbrenner, with a freshly minted choir-boy image, has returned from exile with newly elected Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson to operate the New York Yankees again.

Unbridled innocence is everywhere. Parents can't wait to buy their sons or daughters their first scorecard. Grandparents abandon their TV soap operas for a seat behind home plate. Office workers arrive at the ballpark early in the hope of getting an autograph - any player's autograph.

For many fans, Opening Day remains their strongest link to childhood. The home team that wins its first game will not necessarily win the pennant, however, a fact that somehow is lost in the euphoria of the moment.

New to the National League this season are the expansion Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, bringing to 28 the number of major-league franchises.

I have been watching the phenomenon of Opening Day for almost 50 years and still can't explain its emotional grip in mere words. Yet certain guarantees come with this game, including the one that says five minutes after the umpire cries "Play Ball!" two businessmen in $600 suits will be wrestling in the aisle for a foul ball.

Even before that, some kid in a new sports jacket, complete with home-team logo, will have creased the back of the person sitting in front of him with the runaway mustard from his hotdog. For the trivia-minded, old Braves Field in Boston was the first major league park to list French fries on its Opening Day menu.

In fact, only a few years before Boston's struggling National League franchise moved to Milwaukee in 1953, the repainting of Braves Field was not completed until 24 hours before Opening Day because of inclement weather. This included the folding seats in the reserved grandstand, whose chair backs were slat-like in construction.

BECAUSE the paint did not dry in time, half of the Braves' Opening Day crowd ran around looking like green barber poles from the rear. The Braves turned a minus into a plus by offering to pay everyone's cleaning bill. All a fan had to do was present his garment at a designated cleaner, along with his ticket stub, and the work was done free.

To season-ticket holders who still keep score, baseball remains a kind of pseudo-religion that rocks its own cradle. To them the national pastime, when viewed in a ballpark, is not the slow, dreary game the media keeps telling us it is. Instead it is the ultimate game, where threads of the ballet and gymnastics mesh beautifully with speed and power.

Memories of baseball go cascading back through time. For example, more than 50 years after Babe Ruth retired from baseball, his name is spoken each week at least as often as the most controversial world leaders currently in the headlines. (Besides, the Ayatollah never did go very well to his left.)

And with Opening Day sure to get a preferred spot on the late local TV news, politicians are not above having one of their staff make known the availability of their boss to throw out the first ball.

Yet most fans can't give you a good reason why they root for the Red Sox or the Cardinals or the Dodgers - and those are just the fans who live in Hannibal, Mo. Fans who live in the city their team represents can't either, although they may mutter about "civic loyalty." But to those who can get a ticket, all are moths to the flame on Opening Day.

The most extravagant Opening Day I ever witnessed was at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on April 10, 1962. After four hectic years of performing in the misshapen Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (after moving to California from Brooklyn), the Dodgers would be playing their first gave ever in Chavez Ravine.

The Ravine, a former goat pasture only a five-minute drive from downtown L.A., had been bulldozed and manicured into a work of art. The media were already calling it baseball's Taj Mahal.

THE late Walter O'Malley (the Dodger's owner, who was also a graduate engineer) had made daily visits to the stadium while it was being built to make sure nothing had been overlooked. O'Malley, however, did manage to hide the stadium's public drinking fountains so that almost no one could find them.

For every journalist who entered Dodger Stadium that day, there was a booklet that listed items of interest, including written assurance that in the event of a major earthquake, the stands had been built to fall backwards. There was also a statement that enough concrete had been poured to lay a sidewalk from Los Angeles to Mason City, Iowa.

The playing surface was not quite up to what O'Malley felt the color of natural grass should be, so he had ordered it painted a brilliant green.

Beyond the left-field stands, the Dodgers' all-purpose Message Board, in addition to baseball items, was showing the closing Dow-Jones averages. On my way to the press box, I must have passed a half-dozen ballplayers carved in ice on pedestals on the main concourse.

It made me wonder if the proper clock - in fact, the only suitable clock for a major league ballpark on Opening Day - would ideally have no hands.

I say that because he who would measure excitement in mere minutes would also look for the key in Peter Pan's back - or the gyroscope that provides Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith with the ability to track a line drive hit to either side of him as though he were zeroing in on a guided missile.

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