One hundred years ago, baseball’s Opening Day had a circus-like quality. There was often a parade, sometimes by design, sometimes by necessity. Early ballparks lacked clubhouse facilities, so players would dress at the team hotel, and then walk or ride down Main Street to the field.
It wasn’t quite the march of the of the elephants down to the circus grounds, but it provoked anticipation and gave the players a common touch lacking today, when entire rosters are anonymously and stealthily bussed in and out of subterranean garages beneath fortress-like stadiums.
What baseball gained in private dressing rooms, it lost in intimacy, but it added pomp when it added the participation of presidents to the festivities. This tradition began with William Howard Taft in 1910 or 1911 and lasted as long as the Washington Senators remained in the capital, roughly through the Nixon administration.
Not only did 300-plus-pound chief executive Taft establish the tradition of throwing out the first pitch of the season, but legend has it that he established the seventh-inning stretch.
During the change of sides midway through that frame, he rose to shift his massive girth and the rest of the crowd literally stood on ceremony so as not to disrespect him. They found that, hey, they kind of liked this standing up thing, and continued to do so at every ballgame thereafter—whether Taft was in attendance or not.
This is a myth, as are versions of the tale in which Taft threw back his giant, walrus-mustachioed head and belted out robust choruses of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “East Side, West Side” and “Ireland Must Be Heaven, for My Mother Came From There”—neither Ireland nor mothers had been invented as of 1911.
Traditions erode as times change, and reverence for the past is replaced with the opportunity to make money in the present.
When the Senators left town, presidential favor fell on Baltimore.
Cincinnati, long the home of the first National League game each season due to the 1869 Red Stockings’ status as the first professional team, lost that privilege in the 1990s, when ESPN’s national-television contract required the creation of an opening-night, prime-time broadcast.
The idea of a unitary Opening Day was further eroded by special overseas games, such as the recent two-game series between the Mariners and the A’s in Tokyo.
As has been the case with previous efforts along these lines (for example, the Mets and Cubs in 2000, and the Yankees and Rays in 2004), it was not so much the venue that provoked confusion as the timing, with many exhibition games still to be played. How can there be “real” games when 28 teams are still playing exhibitions, and even the M’s and the A’s would soon resume doing so themselves?
The hardcore fan might be able to take these incongruities in stride, but for the casual or undecided fan—undecided in the sense that they really don’t know how much, if any, money they’re going to spend on baseball—this crepuscular, is-it-or-isn’t-it phase is very hard to decipher.
This is a problem given that these are the exact fans that Major League Baseball needs to woo and win. A business may hold steady preaching to the choir, but growth and vitality requires a constant influx of new converts.
There are just a few days when baseball, a local sport with a national following, can get the public to truly focus—the All-Star Game, traditional family holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day, the World Series and Opening Day.
Baseball, which knows as much about marketing itself as Charles Dickens did about Formula 1 racing, has punted on almost all of these opportunities. The All-Star Game is fading into irrelevance as a result of interleague play. The three-day weekends that bookend summer, once occasions for Monday doubleheaders, are increasingly used as off days by the schedule makers—an inexcusable waste.
Then, there’s Opening Day, which in 2012 takes place on—well, when is it? Was it last week in Japan? Is it tonight in Miami? Is it Thursday, when 14 teams play, or Friday, when the rest of the majors start up, (including the A’s and Mariners, who are playing each other for the third time, but really the first time)?
The cognitive dissonance created by the reality of Opening Day(s) brings to mind the title of an album by the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?
No great formula is required for baseball to recapture whatever magic Opening Day once had, and they don’t even need to exhume President Taft to do it.
The solution can be found in one word: simplify. Have your prime-time showcase, but put it on the night of Opening Day instead of the day before. Want to grow the overseas market by sending a care package of games to Japan? Place them on the actual Opening Day, or subsequent to it. (Yes, there is extra travel involved, but teams heading to Japan can curtail an already-padded exhibition season by a couple of days.)
It’s risky to place too many early-season games on one day—late March and early April can strongly resemble winter in many parts of the country—so make Opening Day over as Opening Weekend.
Kids are in school now anyway, so there are only so many of them you can reach on a Wednesday or Thursday night. Give them Saturday and Sunday so they can be there to see their favorites for the first time in a given year, and make sure that your marketing makes clear to everyone that "OPENING WEEKEND IS APRIL 7-8!" as opposed to “Opening Day is a state of mind. It is everywhere and nowhere, yesterday, today and tomorrow, not to mention last month.”
That sounds silly and hyperbolic, but perhaps it’s true. Opening Day has become so diffuse because we live in a culture that is diffuse.
Families are scattered, we no longer join bowling leagues or the Lions in the numbers we used to, and we communicate mostly as disembodied bytes of text on social networks. As we become more isolated, the idea of community events like holidays seem more and more antiquated. Like most everything else, from television shows to work, even, they can be time-shifted.
Thus, Opening Day really is a feeling, and pretending it is a specific day, place or time is a futile gesture to the past.
Baseball has always been a microcosm of our greater society. If baseball cannot focus its attention long enough to have a proper Opening Day, well, we get the sport we deserve, or, at best, the one we’re capable of understanding. Still, before we give in to this kind of cynicism and accept that another great tradition has gone the way of the dinosaur, it would be good to see baseball make a better effort at honoring that tradition than it did this year.