Opening Day can't be beat

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Opening Day. Used in one context, it is a proper noun. Sure, all sports have their openers. But in only one sport do you have an official Opening Day.

I think the reason Opening Day is so special in baseball is because it is the unofficial start of spring. It is a real stretch to link the beginning of spring with the equinox on March 20. As often as not, it's still cold and we are still in winter's icy grasp.

But by Opening Day, we are more than ready to throw off winter's shackles and celebrate the coming of the two best seasons -- spring and summer.

I know there are those of you out there who prefer autumn to summer. I've heard all those summer saws so many times. But let me tell you one thing. I can cool off in summer a whole lot quicker than I can warm up in winter.

If I'm hot in the summer and don't want to sit indoors under an air conditioner, I can always venture out and jump in the pool. Try that in the winter.

In the summer, everything is green and alive. The sky is blue and the birds sing. Now, picture the bleakness of winter. I suppose that's why I love baseball so much.

I suppose I've attended at least 34 Opening Days, even though some of them were held at night. That was always a bad idea. I'll always remember the night of April 10, 1973.

Just two days earlier it had snowed in Nevada and it was terribly cold that night in Kansas City. Royals Stadium, which was supposed to be ready for the 1972 season, was still unfinished. The water spectacular was nothing more than a huge tarp stretched out beyond the right field wall. The seats in the corners of the upper deck weren't even installed yet and there were huge concrete gaps along the perimeters. Up above left field, general admission was a huge flat slab where one day there would be a new concession stand. I sat in Aisle 125, Box F, Seat 9 and froze with 39,463 others that night. It was the last opener in which I didn't sit in the press box.

The closest I got to an opener the first time was in 1963, when a charter bus from Nevada went to Kansas City for the second game of the season, an afternoon affair against the Yankees. What I remember most (except that I got off school) about it was my dad giving John Mooney a hard time and saying he'd take us only if Mooney agreed to swap tickets with him should my dad be unfortunate enough to be sitting behind a post. Guess what! He and Mooney wound up exchanging seats that rainy, cold and dreary afternoon. Mooney did get a baseball, though.

The next two years I attended openers for the first time with the Novaks. Those were the pennant porch days and in 1964 I'd gone up for an exhibition game with the Cardinals at the only time in which the porch was intact. Charles O. Finley, you might recall, had the bright idea that the Yankees won all those pennants because of their 296-foot right field fence. Since rules had later been amended limiting foul line distances to 325 feet, Finley had the foul line at 325, but brought the fence iteslf in to 296 feet with a gap between it and the line. This was vetoed by the commissioner. The night of the opener, the porch was back to 325 with this legend printed across it, "Kansas City one-half pennant porch."

There were bleacher seats set up out there and in 1965, the kindly Finley said he'd put a roof on the porch to protect the poor fans from the hot summer sun. Well, as we sat in our boxes along the third base line prior to the start of the game, we noticed some workers with welding torches out there on the roof of the porch. "By order of American League President Joe Cronin, the game cannot start until the roof of the porch is cut back to 325 feet," came the announcement over the PA. Ah, Finley had built the roof 29 feet over the field at the line, down to 296 feet. A ball hit on the roof was, of course, a home run.

And on April 3 this year, we watched the Royals drop a 3-1 decision to Detroit. Yeah, I've seen a lot of openers, but the first ones were the most fun. Still, you can't beat Opening Day.

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