Time Begins on Opening Day

Today, about 11.00 (PT), while sitting in a meeting at a client location, a frisson went through the office. “Snow!” This said with invective, phlegm in the voice, sheer unadulterated loathing, even from the ski fanatics in the mix.

Why has the attitude changed (other than that it’s been spring on the Wet Coast for a month now)? In large measure, because the amount of light — now more than darkness — the green things awakening and growing, the fact that most of us are walking around in light jackets or coatless also says it’s time to switch from winter mode to summer mode.

(My apologies to the rest of Canada. Spring shall come!)

And … with the calendar reaching for the end of March … Opening Day looms on the horizon.

I know, I know: the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics have already played the first game of the 2008 season, a few nights ago in Tokyo. (Is there no sense of tradition left? Those wanting to be at the first game of the new season for upward of a century trekked to Cincinnati to see the Reds enjoy the first tilt annually. Now the Lords of the Game treat tradition as dust, in the quest for ever more, ever more. Sigh.)

Yes, the game counts in the standings, and Boston has one game in the bank toward its title defence. Still, Opening Day hasn’t yet come — not really. But it’s almost here.

Back in 1977, when the Toronto Blue Jays took to the friendly confines of their jury-rigged baseball park in the south-west corner of Exhibition Stadium for their very first outing, and that first Chicago White Sox batter stepped into the box against the very first pitch to be delivered from the mound by this new team, snowflakes swirled around, too. How much we all enjoyed that day! — frozen to the bone, yes, and covered in one of Toronto’s regular early April reminders that winter looses its grip on the land not lightly and easily, but with a fight worthy of the return of the glaciers that covered this land a mere 12,000 years ago, but still, shouting joyfully for the first ever strike, the first ever out, the first ever half-inning played, the first hit … memories that will be carried forward and, with reverence, passed on, father to son, for years to come.

That is why time begins on Opening Day, each and every year. It is a division in the endless sweep of time: a point where before, and after, separate at a moment of anticipation and execution. Hope lives again. What true baseball fan hasn’t gone to the ball park on Opening Day expecting to see the first game of a 1.000 season? (Whether the old 154 game schedule, or the current 162 game one; whether in the purist single division format where all that mattered was first place at the end of it all or today’s wild cards, interleague games in the season and like, all of us share that hope as the initial wind-up begins and the first ball is fired at the plate.)

Even when we live far away from major league ball — even when the local team (a Single A club, here in Vancouver) won’t have its opening day for two more months yet — it doesn’t matter. (As June approaches, the same frissons of excitement get to come again, that’s all.) Opening Day is a signal that lazy, warm nights and the hot, blazing sun by day are coming. They signal that that eternal conundrum of baseball — that even the first place teams often lose four of every ten games, that the best batters barely hit their way on base cleanly a little more than three times out of ten, that this very hard game to play still, for all that, looks approachable and something anyone can do whether they’re eight, or sixty-eight, or any of the years on either side or in between — is about to begin.

Being a baseball fan is to acquaint oneself with loss, with defeat, with failure, and to still come away with hope.

For that is what the passing of the seasons also says. Winter, the time when defeat and despair can loom large: not one more time, out there, shovelling the walk; not another dark morning spent chipping ice from the windscreen; not another day spent at work, seeing only headlights and the dark coming and going! Late fall, with the mushy leaves underfoot, what, in my favourite of all haiku — Leaves falling / Lie on one another / The rain beats the rain — goes from colour and crispness to damp and chill, then bluster and wet, finally, as winter comes, quieting itself with snow replacing the endless dripping and occasional lashings of water from the sky. (And who, amongst fandom, has not huddled under an umbrella in mostly-deserted stands, watching the rain fall on the groundsheet laid down to protect the infield, and implored the clouds to part and dry up the rain so that the game may continue?) Even much of spring can be a struggle, as the battle between winter’s attempts to regain its footing and the possibility of good weather are fought for weeks at a time.

Still, and all, when the teams take the field, much of that fades away, and, whether through drizzle and chill or through one of those brilliant days of promise that spring can deliver, all cares fade, replaced with the question of whether today is our day, or theirs. Early in the season, there is little worry — so many games to come, so many chances await that a loss (or ten) does not loom too large. The intense caring of late August and September, as the race draws to its finish, is a long way off. Now is the time to enjoy the field, and what happens on it, purely for itself.

Once again the newspaper will have a column of box scores: for the fan who reads them, the theatre of the mind takes over, picturing plays not seen except in imagination, but now real for all of that. Once again the radio will be filled with the game — and radio, all sound and all imagination of the images before the announcer, is the best alternative to actually being at the park (and often a worthy adjunct to being in the seats as well). Television, with its inferior presentation of a game that requires broad vistas and minute attention to so many things going on at once, will also take its part (and again, without me: I’d rather imagine the game than deal with what is served up as “coverage”. Once again the calendar turns to those days a trip has been planned to a distant city, which includes a pair of seats purchased for the occasion (and sometimes, the whole point of going). A half-year of daily anticipation awaits.

We all have four calendars, whether we know it or not. There’s the one on the wall, of course, that says a new year begins on January 1. Then there’s an internal one, which starts each new year on a birthday, the marker of arriving as an individual in the world. A third one, never quite eliminated, anchors itself on the first day of the school year — for upward of two decades this starts a new cycle and the feeling that, in early September, it’s time to buckle down and “get to work” takes over for years to come.

Then there’s the fourth one, which takes shape this week. The one closest to our hearts and souls, fan or not, because it is tied, unlike any other sport, to the outdoor seasons of our life. Time truly does begin on Opening Day.

“With a dog, and a beer, and the umpire’s call, whaddya got? Let’s Play Ball!

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