The Promise of Opening Day

After a spring playing tune-up games in sunny locales across Florida and Arizona, baseball teams return to the cities they call home. Unlike the other major American sports, there are no (or very few, on occasion) preseason games in home stadiums. The home opener states that baseball is back, where it belongs and will remain until September, or maybe longer with a lengthy playoff run.

Opening Day can be a number of things. It satiates appetites across the country, growing since final outs were recorded last fall. It can be an opportunity to spend a spring day outdoors before it’s truly comfortable to do so. It can be an opportunity to leave work, school, or home behind to revel in the promise of a new start. There is an aura associated with the first game of the season, the product of tens of thousands of fans reconnecting with the national pastime. A stadium awash in the buzz of conversation, optimism, and hope that today your team gets its first win. One win on the way to 81? 90? 100, even? After all, it’s a new season and anything is possible. Magic is in the air. But what if that magic is meant for someone else?

For the first time in my ten years living in Washington, D.C., I went to a Nationals’ home opener. On a Monday afternoon, a standing-room capacity crowd enjoyed a perfect day for baseball. Comfortable and breezy in the shade and pleasantly warm in the sun, with smoke from grills and the scent of hot grease wafting through the air like butterflies. There are legitimate World Series aspirations for this team, and the fan base of D.C.-area locals and converted transplants has both a confidence in the quality of the ball club and a hesitance of its ceiling. But Opening Day is not the time to acknowledge the possibility of another playoff collapse, even if the local media ponders the championship window.

A packed house at Nationals Park is nothing new, and the cadence of crowd noise rose and fell, churning along with the game’s nine innings. The high points were a Bryce Harper home run in the 6th, and an Adam Lind pinch hit bomb an inning later. The Nationals won 4–2, and as a neutral observer, it was a competitive and well-played game. The sellout crowd went home happy, but their win was not mine, and I suspect that in the lean years between the team’s arrival in 2005 and the first playoff appearance in 2012, many of the Nats’ die-hards wanted to be part of something besides a win on Opening Day.

Fans waiting to enter Nationals Park for the first game of the season against the Miami Marlins.

My first Opening Day was April 4, 2005. A sophomore in college, some friends and I drove the 90 miles to Pittsburgh on a Monday morning to watch our beloved Pirates play Milwaukee. Despite a dismal 12-year stretch of forgettable baseball, I was nonetheless excited for the upcoming season. But my main motivation for attending was to be part of a sellout crowd at PNC Park. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, I could hear the hum of the fans already in the stadium. As we walked through the turnstiles and found our seats, the sound crescendoed, and I knew this game would be unlike any I had previously attended.

The crowd was engaged and we cheered for called strikes and routine defensive plays with a roaring optimism and almost parental encouragement that vanished by mid-August when the Pirates were normally well outside of playoff contention. My excitement and optimism for the 2005 season lasted until Rick White’s disastrous sixth inning on the mound put the game well out of reach, and the Brewers won 9–2. But I was hooked on the Opening Day experience.

The next year, I made the same drive to Pittsburgh and watched Michael Keaton need two tries for a successful ceremonial first pitch. The Bucs didn’t do much better that day, giving up five runs in the first two innings on the way to a 8–3 loss. In 2007, the Pirates lost to the Cardinals 3–0, managing just three hits in a game that I attended but of which I have no recollection. After taking a break in 2008 (where the Pirates once again lost their home opener), I traveled to St. Louis in 2009. The Pirates scored four runs in the top of the 9th, including a three-run double by Jack Wilson that stole a win away from the Cardinals and had me both overjoyed and in complete shock.

It took four tries, but at last I had an unforgettable Opening Day memory.

There is something undeniably uplifting in watching your team win its first game at home in a new season. It’s just one win, of course, but a strong start to the season seems to reward a winter-long wait. Though I’ve yet to experience that at a Pirates game in Pittsburgh, the feeling of connectedness I’ve developed here in Washington sent me home happy. Baseball was back, and I was glad to have it.