Opening Day is the start of the new season. It’s about new beginnings, getting fresh and forgetting last year for better or worse. We’re all new when the first pitch is thrown. Anything can happen and we’re all forgiven for our past sins until, or even if, the losses start to pile up. But I can’t help but think behind me. Because as much as we begin again, you remember where you came from. The roots that formed your trunk and paced your rings runs deep. When you measure that against baseball you can trace that familial tree back as far as the game will allow.
“Another season in the sun.”
My Dad says it before every baseball season. The word is still out on who he stole that phrase from. There’s a Terry Jacks song from ’74 and it’s possible he dabbled there. It’s a similar sound to CSN&Y, of which he’s an avid fan. I suppose it’s possible he inadvertently thought it up one day while feeling the sun on his face, but it doesn’t sound like his own prose. More than likely it was ripped from Major League as Tom Berenger gives a toast in the fancy French restaurant. The quote is haunting. Its implications are both energetic and depressing. It’s the signal of a new beginning, but it alludes to an end. Take that as deep as you want.
The fitting quote for another baseball season is a charm I’ve expected from my father over the years. He’s quick to offer his advice and opinions, his experiences, his gut feelings. It’s hard to not listen when he speaks. He stands at a misunderstood and brooding six feet five inches with broad shoulders and a full head of hair that was no doubt a force in his younger misspent youth. His voice carries hints of a New York accent. It hangs off particular words and you probably don’t notice it unless you’ve been listening to it for the last 30 years, but I have and I do. He was born in Flushing New York, his father and his mother were both from the area so the intonation was learned despite spending nearly all of his life in the Cincinnati area.
He is the lifelong Reds fan you think of. He was hooked in 1961 after seeing his first game at Crosley and caught on at just the right time for the extreme highs of the 70s which no doubt cushioned the low blows of the 80s and subsequent other lost decades. This isn’t to say he chose the Reds out of a hat. In a sense it seems almost like destiny, biblical almost, “In the beginning there was the Reds…” Much like the tradition of baseball itself, it was passed down to me. It’s a connection we share, it binds not only us but the years past and future of the organization.
Opening Day, like nearly all other Redleg patrons assume, is a holiday. I never went to school growing up on Opening Day, we were always downtown bright and early awaiting the first taste of summer. Rather than pontificate my own opinions on Opening Day I figured I’d go to the best source I know and ask the Big Man himself about his past years taking up residence in ballparks. The interview is done over the phone because for the past seven years we’ve been apart on Opening Day. It was my bright idea to move all the way to Dodger country so we’re forced to communicate through emails and long distance post-game summaries. It’s my own personal Baseball Tonight, with a lot more swearing.
“1961, that was my first Opening Day. I was nine years old.” My Dad answers my question through the phone. He didn’t really know the question was coming, but that didn’t stop him from responding almost instantly as if the memory is stowed carefully for quick access. “We sat in row seven at old Crosley, we were four seats in on the third base side. My Dad always used to go for business. Some business would have a luncheon on Opening Day and guys would get together at the Friar’s Club. You’d do the lunch thing then they’d hand out the tickets. My Dad new I was crazy about baseball, so one year he asked whoever was throwing the lunch if he could bring his son. That was my first Opening Day.”
He clears his throat, then goes on, “Eddie Kasko, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Wally Post, Gene Freese, Gordy Coleman, Ed Bailey, Jim Baumer and Jim O’Toole pitched.” He recites the lineup as if he’s listing his children. “Robinson won the MVP that year, the Reds went to the World Series and lost to the Yankees in five games. It was a great year, a really great year.”
The baseball love affair for my father began a few years earlier. He’s the oldest of seven and while his younger brothers and sisters would clamor around the bigger television set in the family room he would often retire to the kitchen to sit with his Grandfather (Papa Ferrell). Papa was from Pennsylvania and so he was a Pirates fan. But he would regale my future Dad with stories. It was in those days of Saturday baseball that the love grew. Always craving a good story, the six year old would listen to yarns about the baseball players of yore. In between stories he would fetch cups of coffee for his Papa who fancied a little Irish in it. The ‘strong’ coffee no doubt let the floodgates of stories and pastimes spill out a little smoother, a little more embellished, a little more exciting.
 As a child my Dad thought, “Well if he likes a shot of this whiskey stuff, it must be like a Coke, so I bet two shots would taste even better.” Without further questioning on the matter, I’m assuming my Dad was the unofficial favorite of his grandkids without him really knowing why.
Opening Day was about business. Yes, there was the parade and the start of another year, but like any big event it draws an opportunity to rub a few elbows. My Grandfather played this card and my Dad tagged along taking the opportunity to score a seat and watch the game. This is a trend that continued his entire life. The business deals that went down with the backdrop of baseball is staggering, but to listen to my Dad that’s not what he recalls. The business was something that had to be done, it was work, but if you could mix a little fun in there, then why not? As he got older he employed the same strategies of attending Opening Days while entertaining clients, but in asking him he can’t recall what suit sat inches from him but he knows everyone of the nine uniforms that 90 feet in front him like the back of his hand.
Baseball is analytical in most senses. It’s boiled down to numbers so strongly that anyone who plays it will be playing against ghosts forever and always. It’s this number crunching that appealed to my Dad as he was growing up. You know your worth. “It was a history, it was bigger than life.” Those numbers you look up in books appear almost insurmountable. It grabbed him as a kid. Everyone plays on the same level and we’re all playing the same game. It makes a simpler life and there’s little room for gray in black and white numbers. This complicated simplicity appeals to children because it’s a language they can understand and my Dad was no expectation.
My Dad was building his legacy, indulging in the great game and cuing up a passion his children would share. Baseball is stories, it’s numbers, it’s calculated irrationality that grabs you as a child and doesn’t go away.
Baseball binds us.
It’s a game, it’s a history that we are all witness to. We carve ourselves out of its joy, out of it’s heartbreak. It’s a guiding symbol and a heavy placed metaphor for how we should live. It’s not all of that on the surface, but you need to learn to look underneath the numbers to find what you’re looking for. Beneath statistics, winners and losers there are people. There are the stories that inspire the magic that comes together for fleeting moments. It keeps us honest and we are going to fail more than we succeed, but as long as you have the game there’s not much else you need. The game is bigger than the day to day outcome. In the end when you’re tired and laid up it’s the hope that you linger on, the moments and the retentions. It’s passing it down to your clans, it’s strong coffee, it’s grandfathers, it’s children, it’s business, it’s bigger than life. It’s another season in the sun.