Opening Day. The words have a certain donut quality of putting a smile on your face the minute they touch your lips.
It conjures images of running downstairs as a kid to open presents, only instead of a Nintendo 64 it’s the ability to refresh the screen and see what fantasy stats Baseball Claus has delivered.
Opening Day. It’s a phrase that comes with a poop-ton of promise. In the old days— before you had to weigh COVID calculations before offering a brief hug to someone— the promise was a hot dog and a stadium.
We’d cram our oversized American butts into seats that were too small and purchase food that was too expensive and smile as the sun beat down on our increasingly burned legs.
We’d come to the ballpark and relax. Sure, there were gripes in the mix—traffic home was going to suck, this inning was taking forever, how do you not pull Pedro Baez immediately after his first throw?
The wonder and whining have returned in most of their glory.
However, this is the season before the season; I hope. One Opening Day removed from a thrown-together Hail Mary of 60 games and a campaign largely devoid of anyone in the stadiums, MLB will fire up the proverbial grill once again.
And it will be just like we remembered, sort of. I mean, not really. There are things that are distinctly foreign to 2019’s Opening Day.
The Game Done Changed
For one, there will hardly be any fans on Thursday. Now if you are watching a Tampa Bay game in July that’s hardly cause for alarm, but it’s certainly unsettling when it’s Game 1 of 162 and there are large swaths of empty seats in most MLB stadiums.
There will be a wide discrepancy of how many fans will be allowed to root on their team in-person this season. By the time the Blue Jays return to Toronto, we may be in a better place globally. For the time being, the Blue Jays will play at TD Bank Park, which will welcome 15% capacity or about 1,275 fans, according to the New York Times.
By contrast, fans in Texas will get to at least enjoy the congestion of a regular game. Globe Life Field in Arlington will open with more of a “what, me worry” attitude to the proceedings. Texas Rangers fans will fill the seats to the tune of 40,300 people. The very mention of that many people in one place has me rubbing Purell on my body like Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny.
On Wednesday, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo announced the team had a positive COVID-19 test come back. Subsequent tracing determined that four players and a staff member would need to quarantine, affecting the roster for Opening Day.
It was a blunt reminder that the pageantry of the season would not escape the brutal fact that we are still very much battling an unrelenting disease.
For all the positive signs that we have turned a corner in regards to the coronavirus, there will still be mitigation protocols that need to be followed. And there will likely be positive results to follow, especially as teams get back to a full slate of games and travel resembles the normal flow of the season.
Simply going to the stadium with the family isn’t nearly as carefree as we would like. But getting to the point that it is will take continued diligence and the realization that a season that looks normal on paper is anything but.
A Young Wave of Optimism
But it’s Opening Day. What can be celebrated certainly needs to be savored. Bat flips and double plays are good for the soul. Shouting expletives at the TV when Angel Hernandez inevitably calls a ball for a strike is just, well, cathartic.
And there are plenty of things to make you giddy that baseball has returned.
With a solid bullpen, an embarrassment of riches in the rotation, and a bunch of baller-status bats in the lineup, the Dodgers will be a team to love or loathe throughout 2021.
Their depth isn’t just a strength, it’s a reason that some are considering whether a gaudy number like 118 wins is attainable.
Thankfully, they have an NL West foil in the San Diego Padres that will bolster the entertainment this season as an already classic rivalry heats up.
This brings me to the best this year has to offer. Normally a sport asks you to wait to see if the next generation of players has legitimate stars to lay claim to the best in the game.
The Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. is just one of several players under the age of 25 that will compete with Mike Trout for the title of greatest in the game.
Tatis Jr. is dynamic, sure. His fervor for energizing the crowd doesn't mean he's all flash and no substance. He followed a remarkable rookie campaign with a sophomore season that proved he was worth every penny of his eventual 14-year, $340 million contract. Hitting 17 bombs in 59 games and shoring up his defense has him solidified as one of the top all-around players.
The Washington Nationals boast one Juan Soto, someone who captivates well before he launches whatever out-pitch is thrown into the D.C. sky.
His antics in the batter’s box are just the start of the many reasons you can’t take your eyes off a guy who last year owned a .490 OBP.
The 23-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. in Atlanta, the hard-hitting Boston juggernaut Rafael Devers (24), and the slick-fielding Luis Robert (23) from Chicago are just a few reasons that this might be one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory.
A sport that has typically shied away from touting individualism is about to see some of the most electric and talented players take the field. And, sorry, I’m just giddy for it all to commence. Although, I’d call it giddy with a side of reservations.
The fact remains that we don’t know what life holds for us tomorrow let alone next season. COVID variant strains and pandemic fatigue are causing an alarming rise in COVID cases nationwide. And that’s before any starting lineups are turned in.
We could very well have to hunker down again sometime in the future. The positive signs can dissolve back into the reality of another surging disease. Then again, maybe we beat this thing and the next Opening Day is filled with a jubilant and fully attended atmosphere from coast to coast.
Regardless, this spring has arrived. And, yes, it’s different. It’s not as carefree as previous versions. But it’s Opening Day. And you should enjoy at least a modicum of the joy that comes with grown men playing a game for exorbitant amounts of money.
Hug a family member if your own respective protocols warrant it. Cheer every last pitch. If you’re an Orioles fan, optimism on the field may be fleeting but at least hope off of it is very much real.
Opening Day. It somehow sounds a little sweeter this year.