What will we miss Thursday without Major League Baseball's opening day, stolen from us by the coronavirus?
We’ll miss the excitement of unfettered optimism and the promise of young prospects. We’ll miss that first crack of the bat, the first bite of the hot dog and the first whiff of freshly trimmed grass.
And, according to those deeply involved in the grand old game, we'll miss much more.
'It's my New Year's Day'
Rickie Ricardo is one of the busiest media personalities in sports, pulling double-duty as the Spanish-language broadcaster for the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Eagles. He also hosts radio shows in both cities.
Almost immediately after the Astros eliminated the Yankees in Game 6 of last season's American League Championship Series in Houston, Ricardo hopped in his car and drove to call an Eagles-Cowboys game in Arlington, Texas.
But even a hardened media vet like Ricardo gets amped for opening day.
“It’s like the birth of something new,” he said. “To me, the calendar year starts on opening day. It’s my New Year’s Day. The pomp and circumstance – I’ve done a bunch of them, but I still get jitters. I still get nervous. I get butterflies when that mic flips on for the first time.”
For Ricardo, opening day isn’t just about seeing new faces, like Yankees pricey free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole; it's about seeing familiar ones, too.
“When you get to the parking garage, the kids have this smile on their faces, and they say, ‘Welcome back, it’s great to see you,’ ” Ricardo said. “The next day, it’s like eh, 'Hey, whatever,' but that day, you walk in, the elevator attendant, the security guard -– everyone is happy to see you.”
Ricardo typically only gets one or two warm-up games during spring training -– he was scheduled to call the Yankees’ game with the Toronto Blue Jays in Montreal on Monday night. He’s still getting to know the ins and outs of every player.
But Ricardo felt the juices flowing recently watching the Yankees play the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. New York only brought a handful of its major leaguers to the game.
And yet ...
“The place was an absolute mob scene,” Ricardo said. “It was packed. It was the biggest draw for the Pirates in all of spring training, seeing the quasi-Yankees. As I left the stadium that day, I said. 'This is spring training?' Can you imagine for Pirates fans what it must be like opening day? It may be empty Day 2. But in Pittsburgh, Day 1 is a holiday.”
'Opening day is like Christmas for us'
When you’re die-hards for a floundering franchise like the Pirates, the beginning of the baseball season is hope reborn.
“Opening day is the one day you're not in last place,” said Ann Smeltzer, who has had Pirates season tickets with her husband Harry since 1994.
Since then, the Pirates are 1,883-2,258, a .458 winning percentage. But the Smeltzers have stayed true to the team through a 19-year postseason drought, 11 90-loss seasons (including seven straight) and the squandered Gerrit Cole era.
"That makes us very sad people," said Harry, reflecting on the couple's devotion to the downtrodden franchse.
For the Smeltzers, it’s not about good baseball. It’s about the good in baseball. They have built lasting friendships with people they've met at the ballpark. Ushers at games have invited them to their weddings.
“In 1997, I was pregnant during the summer,” Ann said, “and the next year, we went to opening day; the woman who was the cashier for our beer stand asked, 'Did you have the baby?' I said, ‘Yes, we’re bringing him tomorrow,’ and when we came the next day, she'd knitted a baby blanket for him. On his first birthday, the next year, she sent him a card with a savings bond. Her name is Priscilla, and we've now been friends for 23 years.”
The Smeltzers have many other fond memories of opening day. On April 9, 2001, the Pirates' opened at PNC Park, the first game at their new stadium. Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell died that day, and fans adorned his statue outside the park with flowers and tributes. At the 1992 home opener at Three Rivers Stadium, the team's former ballpark, the Smeltzers snuck into the first row to watch Chuck Noll, the Steelers' legendary head coach, throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Of course, that same season ended in misery for the Pirates, who lost in Game 7 of the NLCS to the Braves. (Remember Sid Bream?) Yet year after year, the Smeltzers return.
"Opening day is like Christmas for us," Harry said. "I think everybody can be a fan on opening day, but to true baseball fans, it's the best day of the year. If you have to describe what opening day means to someone, they'll never get it."
"I believe every season there's truly a chance,” Ann said. “Every year is a new season and a new start, and you’re just hoping they don’t go completely in the tank by the spring.”
'It's all about opening day'
For coaches, opening day can be a much-needed reality check.
“The beginning of the season for teams is about contributing to team morale, about how competitive you are going to be, about how realistic it is to win a World Series,” said Kevin Howard, the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league hitting coordinator and a professional ballplayer for a dozen years. “When guys get off to a hot start, people take it more seriously."
In 2016, the Indians lost on opening day, but Howard felt the team was locked in, a World Series contender from the get-go. And they were, although they lost the World Series in heart-breaking fashion in Game 7 to the Cubs.
Howard felt good about the Indians' shot this season too -- until the coronavirus pandemic pushed the 2020 start back indefinitely. Now Howard remains in Arizona under pseudo-lockdown, waiting for Day 1.
When that day finally comes, he said, what a relief it will be.
“The perspective from coaches and players might be a little different than fans, but not much,” Howard said of opening day. “It's kind of the introduction to good weather and everything that comes along with it. It’s always fresh, and it just puts you in a good mood, just the thought of getting to see people I might not get to see.
"There's a lot of positivity associated with it. For me, it's all about opening day.”
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