The Optimism of Opening Day

As with the delving into a brand new and long awaited novel, Major League Baseball’s opening day maintains something of a mystical and oft-grandiose hold on the heart of a baseball fan.

The novel of a new season is but waiting in earnest to be written upon, ready for today’s heroes and tomorrow’s legends to pen their tale and post their claim on historical relevancy. Opening day is where the first line of the first chapter is scribed with the sweat and dirt of digging out grounders and the frustrating hilarity of a pitcher trying to lay down a bunt.

It’s the concluding mark of football season, March Madness, and winter coinciding with the vibrant arrival of spring in all of its glorious opportunity.

It’s the greener grass of outfields and 0-0 records.

It’s finding a balance between statistical advanced metrics and a lucky bounce.

It’s fond remembrances or good riddance’s of those who’ve passed on to rival teams or retirement back into normal life.

It’s the accepted injustice of a blooper falling for a hit and the line-drive being snagged for an out.

It’s the 35 year-old senior citizens of baseball trying to coax their legs into stretching a down-the-line single into a double just a few more times.

It’s the war of a pitcher against a batter, and skilled experience against anxious youth.

It’s Take Me Out to the Ballgame and military jets zooming over the field at a thunderous National Anthem’s perfect crescendo.

It’s the wonderful combination of playing small ball and smashing home runs, of hitting behind the runner and swinging for the lights.

It’s marveling at a once head-bound slider snapping down for a strike as the batter bails out of the way.

It’s the whip-like crack of a wooden Louisville connecting with a 98 mph fastball.

It’s listening to your favorite broadcasters on a radio station that barely comes in.

Opening day is the jumping off point of April’s optimism, July’s realism, and trying to trick the shadow of nagging pessimism into believing that with great trade deadlines comes great re-possibility.

It’s turning two and stealing second.

It’s learning new faces, judging new rosters, and festering new gripes with front office decisions.

It’s the finished product finally being presented from the hot stove.

It’s the first glimpses of the ivy at Wrigley, staring at the beautifully ugly Green Monster at Fenway, and staying up far too late to catch the final innings of a Dodgers game in Chavez Ravine.

It’s seeing a leaping, diving, sprawled out catch and an exaggerated memory reminding you that you once did that very same thing as a kid.

It’s the pure joy of cheering for a winner and the satisfying comeuppance of jeering a loser.

It’s always knowing more than your team’s manager.

It’s seeing the action on the field and heading out the door to imitate it in your back yard.

It’s the tranquil peace of playing catch once again and realizing that, for once, words needn’t be spoken. The smack of the ball in your mitt is serene enough.

Save the Olympics, no other opening sports spectacle can quite top baseball’s opening day. A dozen games on the same day. Watching your team take the field in the bright sunlight or under the beaming spotlights. The thrill of opening day represents a truly American characteristic: that of hope. The hope that this year will be different from last, that long suffering fans will finally find retribution, that the season is long and anything can happen.

It’s a chance to start anew, the shortcomings of the past no longer tugging on the coat tails of the present’s potential.  For a fan, the birth of a new baseball season is one of the most enjoyable days of the year.

Happy Opening Day, and go Cubs go!

The agony, angst, and anguish of defeat

As I sat there absorbing the murder of the Duke Blue Devils at the hand of the Arizona Wildcats, it occurred to me that this is the lowest point for sports fans.  That time where the game is over, but it’s not over yet.  Those waning minutes where the contest has already been decided, but it’s your obligation as a fan to sit there and take the punches until the buzzer sounds.  It’s a cruel concoction of emotions that protrude from inside and are as plain on your face as Coach K’s nose.

First it was incredulity.  Then hope.  Then anxiousness.  Anger.  Shock.  Denial.  The faintest glimmer of hope again.  Denial again.  Acceptance.   Anger, again.  And finally, depression.

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Duke fans Thursday night were collectively ripping them out and hurling them at Dick Vitale.  We had to blame this on someone; an unabashed Duke-aficionado would have to do.  Gut-wrenching, baby.

This was me as I watched my number 1 seeded Dukies get bum-rushed by an Arizona team that got confused and thought themselves the 86 Celtics.  I shared my pain with only one other of the 12 or so guys in the room, my buddy Chris, who was stewing inwardly every bit as much as I was.  We were sitting near each other, but not saying a word.  The other guys were letting us have it, and we had absolutely nothing.  Not even our feeble retorts of their own teams being knocked out carried any weight.  We were Duke fans, and that is the greatest sin of all.  Only Yankee fans know our plight, and no one ever feels sorry for them either.  Duke won the 2010 NCAA Championship, and Chris and I were able to ride our high horses for an entire year.  When the tides turn however, the guys come down on us like Derrick Williams’ tip-dunk:  thunderously.

There is no redeeming outlook at this point.  Last year’s championship holds no water when this year’s hopes are dashed.  The other 4 titles Duke has won in our lifetime meant nothing as we watched our team get dominated by one with less talent on paper, but on this night, a whole lot more swagger.  Our team was favored, they were better at every aspect of the game for an entire season.  On this night, however, they would have lost to 4th grade girls.  The second half was a Ravens blitz and Duke Nation was the quarterback.  The scar on my back from the knife will last a lifetime.

This was a brutal beat-down, a debilitating defeat, a raucous route, and as I learned while the boys and ‘Cats fans on TV simultaneously showered insults, a very loud loss.  At least I still have alliteration; they can’t take that away from me (a somber solace to say the least).  Chris and I didn’t even have the shallow comfort of the third or fourth quasi-fan who is cheering usually only because they want to help their bracket.  Nay, on this night it was all railing against Duke – no holds barred.  And I couldn’t blame them.

A year ago, I was the one exalting when Northern Iowa took down Kansas (Ali Farokhmanesh!); who poked fun at North Carolina (didn’t even make the dang tournament); and chided my Kentucky friends for as long as that ship would sail.  I deserved what I got this year, although that doesn’t make the pill any easier to swallow.

I hate that it turned out this way.  I hate that Duke blew a six-point halftime lead in about 3 nanoseconds and proceeded to give up a 19-2 Arizona run.  I hate that Miles Plumlee airballed a four footer.  I hate that Nolan Smith missed a wide open transition layup.  I hate that Kyle Singler forgot how to shoot entirely (14% from three in March).  I hate that Ryan Kelly was born.

As I watched the minutes tick away, Duke’s deficit (take that, alliteration) increasing with every possession, I began to get that empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It’s like my dog died, my girl ran away, and I crashed my truck all in one night.  Yes, this train wreck of a game was like a country song – one that you only listen to when you’re home alone and it’s raining and you’re all lonely inside and a gallon of Rocky Road just won’t do it (thank you, Topanga, for teaching me how to cope with life’s hard times).

Over 36 hours later and I’m still angry about it.  I hate that I have to hear North Carolina jokes for a whole year and that someone else will win the national championship and all of a sudden one of the guys was that team’s biggest fan since the day they were born.  There’s nothing more annoying than a bandwagon fan, except when teams lose to teams they shouldn’t.  My apologies, I’m trying to keep the bitterness to a minimum.  Somewhere, Christian Laettner is weeping.  If only I could join him.

There is some good news: baseball starts next week.  At least I’m not a Cubs fan; oh wait…


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