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Can You Wait For Opening Day? I Can't!
Every year we have one -
Baseball season has been around since before most of us were even born. And every year it starts the same way: Opening Day, that is if you don't count Spring Training. I don't count Spring Training. Spring Training games don't count. Opening Day counts.
The first game of a 162 game season. As fans, we search out the day our favorite team starts the new year. Or, these days, more likely we search out our favorite players to see what teams they've been traded to during the off-season. One way or another, we mark the date on our calendars and anticipate its arrival.
We all have our favorites. The Opening Day I'll never forget is 1995. It was the return of baseball after the players strike of 1994. And I was still mad at baseball. I had no intention of paying for a ticket and going to a game. But I figured I'd watch on television because that was already paid for, and it wouldn't make a difference one way or the other if I watched or not. This was my first full baseball season in several years because my family had been living overseas for the past four years. We got to see a game an average of once a week, and it was rarely my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves.
I was there the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's all time home run record. I was there the Sunday afternoon Bob Horner hit four homeruns - one each time he got up to the plate. I was a fan of the Braves when the only reason to watch them was to see Dale Murphy's swing. The previous fall I'd stayed up every night for a week to witness the Braves in their first World Series appearance since coming to Atlanta. The games were shown on the Armed Services Network at three o'clock in the morning. We lost. Who cared. We were there. Whodathoughtit?
I came back to the States the summer of 1994 and what did I find? A baseball strike. Were they kidding me? A strike? This year of all years? I was beyond angry. I felt robbed of the right of every red-blooded American: a summer with the national pastime on TV every night (at a reasonable hour!) I swore when they came back the next year I would allow myself to be boiled in oil before I put one red nickle of my money into the owner's or players' pockets by going to any games at the stadium. (At the time, the Braves still played at the old Atlanta/Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron made history, not the Disneyland spectacular it is today shackled with a name I dare not speak. Don't get me started on that subject.)
But then my sister got free tickets at work, so I caved in, and not just once either. Three times. I know. I was weak. But they were free! I was tempted to wear a shirt that said, "I did not pay for these tickets." But I was afraid that would catch the attention of the TV cameras, and I didn't want anybody who knew me to see me at the games. That would have been worse than my mother catching me buying a lottery ticket after all the Southern Baptist Sunday School she had carried me to as a child.
The 1995 season was one of the few years the National League beat the American League in the All-Star Game. I hate losing to a League that calls what it plays baseball when their pitchers don't even bat. I love to see a pitcher, I don't care what his ERA is, have to pick up a bat, stand up at the plate and see what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a 90-plus-hour fastball, or see a breaking ball disappear in the twinkling of an eye from home plate instead of the pitcher's mound. Keeps them humble. You can't tell me any pitcher will ever feel the same about serving up a home run pitch if he is ever lucky enough to find out for himself what it is like to hit one of those babies out of a major league park.
And it all started on that Opening Day in 1995. Chipper Jones' first complete season. This memory is now even more significant because Chipper is now well into his retirement. That year he went on to come in second to a Dodger's pitcher for Rookie of the Year. But that night, in his first game after coming back from a serious injury before the strike, he had "Rookie" plastered all over him. In his enthusiasm during an early inning he went for an infield pop-up and ran over Greg Maddux, who was making his first appearance as a Brave. You just wanted to take Chipper aside and say, "I know you're excited kid, but trust me. You'll have a much longer career in the majors if you can see our way clear to avoid killing off the best pitcher in baseball on your first night." (And as far as I'm concerned, Maddux is still the best pitcher baseball has ever seen. His first Braves catcher, Charlie O'Brien, said he'd never seen so many batters turn and head back to the dugout, shaking their heads and saying, "How in hell does he do that?!")
A few nights later when he hit his first home run, Chipper didn't punch his fist, or smirk, or try to look cool. He grinned. It looked like he was trying like the dickens not to, but he just couldn't help it. I'm telling you, if you missed seeing him in his Rookie year, you were not going to see him that way again. By his second season, the Rookie in him was gone forever. I guess that's true of most players. That's why the first year is so special. And seeing the veterans get excited right along with Chipper the night of his first home run helped every one of them remember what it was like when they first played the game. And in 1995, if anyone was going to bring back baseball, it was going to be the Rookies who grinned when they hit a home run.
It's been many years since that Opening Day. Maddux is long retired, but not before winning three more Cy Young Awards with the Braves. (He won his first while he was still with the Chicago Cubs.) Chipper finished his career hardly ever grinning any more. Rumors circulated he would try to extend his career by turning his coat and becoming that lowest of all professional athletes: a designated hitter in the American League. Fortunately for Braves fans, we didn't have to plead, "Say it ain't so . . ." Larry (aka Chipper) went into the record books as the only player of the 14 division title era (a Major League Baseball record) who played his entire career listening to the "Woah-O-OOO" chant.
But baseball if full of irony and injustices. I'll give you an example. For the 1996 Olympics Ted Turner built a parking lot on the site where Babe Ruth's home run record was broken. And the Braves now play across Hank Aaron Boulevard at a stadium not named for him. In a year or two the Braves will move out of Atlanta and into the suburbs into yet another stadium named after a corporation instead of a record-breaking player. Before any baseball field is named, I think one of two questions should be asked: What did he hit? or What was his ERA?
Greg Maddux once said you start every game hoping to throw a perfect game. Then you hope for a no-hitter. Then you hope for a shut-out. Then you hope for a win. Then you hope your reliever gets a win.
Opening Day is like that. It's the beginning of a brand new season, and . . . anything can happen.
UPDATE: Chipper did retire at the end of the 2012 season as something as rare as the Dodo Bird: a player who played his entire career with one, and only one, team. And as of January 2014, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Bobbie Cox are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. John Smoltz was elected to the Hall in 2015. Chipper Jones will be eligible in 2018.