Baseball’s Newest Stat — OPDH, Opening Day Hope

With my NCAA basketball tournament bracket already in the trash merely days after it was committed to paper, I set my sights firmly on the first day of the Major League Baseball season. Unlike my now crumpled bracket, the first day of baseball season offers the same sense of hope and optimism that arrives with the first days of spring after a long and cold winter. Regardless of the previous year’s results, each team starts with a clean slate, and even the team with the previous year’s worst record has a chance to enjoy at least a day in first place. The regular baseball season may be 162 games long, but none of those games hold the same type of excitement that comes with the first game of the year.

Baseball fans may come from different walks of life, but there is something common about how we all experience the first day of the season. Opening day is a seven-year-old kid who’s been plucked out of school by her father — mitt in hand — staring up at a stadium that may as well be Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon. At that moment, it’s bigger than either.

Opening day is a group of long graduated college friends making it out to the ballpark to catch up for a few hours over cold beer and hot dogs while watching their favorite team with the same enthusiasm as their seven-year-old selves. Opening day is a high school freshmen who managed to sneak a pocket radio into his English class with headphones running along his sleeve so he might listen to the game while pretending to understand Shakespeare. Opening day is a 68 year-old man who will drive to the stadium by himself to eat peanuts and keep a precise scorecard that he’ll mail to his adult son after the final out. Each of these fans may possess a different connection to the game, but, for one day, they will share a pulse and the belief that this just could be their year.

For me, my opening day hopes are aligned with the Baltimore Orioles. Despite a successful 2012 season — which included 93 wins and their first playoff appearance in 15 years — many of baseball’s most respected prognosticators have all but dismissed the Orioles’ chances of duplicating last season’s accomplishments. The consensus among those doubting the Orioles seems to be based on their improbable success in one run games — they were 29-9 in those — and extra inning games — 16-2 in those — in 2012. Certainly they cannot expect to prevail in all of those close games for the second time in as many seasons, right?

I suppose the numbers — and the lack of any high profile acquisitions in the off season — suggest they will not. Here’s the thing about opening day, though — none of that matters. For one day, anything is possible. Perhaps the Orioles’ most impressive feat in 2012 was the fact that they were able to extend that opening day hope — we’ll call this OPDH, baseball fans are really into statistics and acronyms — straight through September and right into a Divisional Series against the chronically successful New York Yankees.

Given the two teams’ recent history, I’m reluctant to even call their relationship a rivalry. For the last 15 years, the Orioles have proven to be more of a speed bump than a postseason obstacle for the Yankees. It actually brings me physical discomfort to write those words, but it’s true. But 2012 marked an end to that trend, as the Orioles managed to bottle up that opening day magic and lead all of Major League Baseball in OPDH.

You would have been mocked last year if you said that the Orioles had a chance of winning 90+ games in what is generally agreed to be baseball’s toughest division. However, they showed up to play every day, and managed to sustain Baltimore fans’ collective OPDH levels for an unprecedented six month span. Improbable is not synonymous with impossible, and the Orioles proved that much last year.

Before the O’s step on the field to play the Tampa Bay Rays for their first game of the season, ‘anything can happen’ is all that any O’s fan needs to believe. In fact, that is all that any baseball fan needs to believe. So this year — like every year — I choose to believe that anything can happen. Sometimes, that feeling only lasts for a day. Sometimes, it lasts through September. I’m crossing my fingers for the latter, and hoping that the O’s season is more successful than my NCAA bracket.