If we’ve been waiting all winter yet have to wait a little longer, then Opening Day must be rushing close on the heels of Flashback Friday  at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Life, despite what Thomas Boswell says, does not begin on Opening Day. But it does peak then.
Is there any day better than Opening Day? Like what? Your birthday? On your birthday, you just get older. On Opening Day, we all get younger.
Opening Day is better than Christmas and Chanukah and Kwanzaa all rolled into one. Whatever their merits, they each occur in December, when it’s nasty outside. Opening Day might carry the chill of late winter, but it’s really early spring — the glass is at least 75% full on Opening Day.
You like getting gifts? How about the gift of baseball, presented in 162 pinkynail-sized boxes on your pocket schedule? And the first box you open is always the best. It has to be. There’s nothing to which you can compare it. You’ve been 0-0 since October. You get to start filling up those columns with W’s and L’s after six months of Z’s. Happy new year!
Several years ago, a friend of Stephanie’s sent her one of those pointless Internet surveys. She forwarded it to me. The only question I answered with any conviction was, “What’s your favorite holiday?” Without irony, I replied, “Opening Day.”
Opening Day is my holiday. Opening Day is an Upper-Case occasion for celebration. For baseball fans, it is our day of jubilee. Life may not begin on Opening Day, but it does leap from mundane to magnificent. And for that I am thankful.
Opening Day is good any way you can get it, and if you have to get it on TV or radio or Internet or smoke signal, well, get it there. But it’s not a fully realized sensation unless you attend its ceremonies, partake in its rituals, surround yourself with its affirmation. I’m not in the habit of telling anybody “ya gotta” do anything. But to observe Opening Day, ya gotta go.
I realize saying so does not make it a done deal. Admission for these sacred rites is, as a rule, hard to come by. We’ve been subject to an avalanche of ticket-package come-ons and vague lottery promises and demand always outstrips supply. But you’ve got months to strategize if you’re bound and determined. What is there to do in December and January except, as Rogers Hornsby suggested, stare out the window and wait for spring? Rogers Hornsby would figure out a way to get to Opening Day, and he’s been dead for more than 40 years.
It has been my great fortune to attend Opening Day services eight times since 1993. Four of those were true season openers, the rest Home Openers, but the spirituality is the same. Just because the Mets played two games in Japan or three in Florida or four in Canada doesn’t make the first appearance on Shea soil any less sacred.
My most recent true Opener was the very first game of the 2002 season, five years ago next week. It was April 1, just like this season’s starter in St. Louis will be. It was a win, 6-2 over the Pirates. Of course it was a win. It was Opening Day. We’re not supposed to lose on Opening Day. I myself am 8-0, forever skewing my expectations. (Somebody get me a ticket for this Opening Day if you want 2007 to get off on the right foot.)
Entwined with the score was the inherent optimism — this was the sun-drenched Opener of Alomar and Vaughn, Cedeño and Burnitz, the year of the big comeback from the letdown of 2001. There’d be plenty more of these, 53,734 of us assured each other. It didn’t turn out to be so, but on Opening Day, who knew? A 1.000 in the Pct. column looks good no matter that it foreshadows nothing.
I came into six tickets that year through the graces of a friend with connections. Immediately surrounded myself with all my favorite Mets people from the earliest part of the century: Jason, Rob, Laurie and Richie, who came with his son, also named Richie. (This business needed an actual hooky-player, I decided.) I’m a big man when I’ve got six tickets on Opening Day. I live to spread the wealth.
Everybody was pumped. Rob met me at home and we took the train in together. We met Jason and the Richies at the gate. Laurie, who worked in the same place as me, already had her ticket and met us at the seats in the right field boxes. She proposed a pre-game toast to the Diamondbacks, who brought all of us so much joy the previous November. We were giddy.
My cell phone, which usually lay quiet in my bag, blew up. That’s hip-hop for rang a lot. I had put the word out that I would be going to Opening Day; if you’re going, give me a call, we’ll hook up. A couple of guys called. They were in the stadium somewhere or on their way. Yes, Shea Stadium was the center of the universe…even more than usual.
Like I said, the game was a success on field and off. The best line belonged to Richie the Elder. On a grounder to first in the ninth, Mo Vaughn went after the ball and Armando Benitez covered the bag. “Geez,” Richie said. “I think the whole stadium is tilting toward us.” Ha!
The great part about Opening Day is that it is a whole day. The excitement swells in the small hours’ sleeplessness, crests as one grabs one’s LIRR schedules and Walkman and water bottle (how did my father go places without a bag?) and then, of course, the game. The yearbook, the media guide, the first program. I get weighed down. The first pretzel or chicken sandwich or, if I’m gastronomically daring, hot dog. The first win. And the first happy recap and enthusiastic exit of the year.
And then? Then, the thrill continues. On the train back to Long Island, Rob and I stick out among the work-weary. We went to the game. We went to Opening Day. The day is still in progress, ours a lot better than that of everybody who wasn’t there. Somebody at Jamaica asks who won. Somebody at Jamaica always asks who won on Opening Day. This is no obscure affair in August against the Expos (it’s 2002, there are still Expos). Everybody knows this is Opening Day. The Mets won, I volunteer to anybody who even looks curious, 6-2.
I say bye to Rob at my place and the day continues. Stephanie is home and I fill her in on all the fun, on Richie’s stadium-shifting remark, on Laurie’s Diamondbacks toast, how exciting it was to see all the new players and old pals. I pass along my publications for inspection.
But it’s still not over! We go to dinner at the East Bay Diner. I’m wearing my Mets sweatshirt and my Mets jacket. People can figure out where I’ve been. I’ve been doing something important. Important to me, noteworthy to them. Then, because this is a Monday and we didn’t do it Sunday, we go grocery shopping. In the Waldbaum’s lot, we run into Officer Tom, a Nassau County cop with whom I went to high school and ran into at our reunion the previous summer. He’s one of the Yankees fans who stuck it to me but good back in the day. But now, like Rupert Pupkin’s fantasy in The King of Comedy,
I’m getting even everywhere. That’s right, Tom, I was at the game today. The Mets won. Get used to it. Go arrest somebody.
We do our shopping and then we land on Sydra, our favorite cashier, the only cashier who asks after us, asks if we found everything we were looking for (we realize in later years that this is kind of robotic-friendly, but at the time, it’s refreshing). I’ve worn enough apparel to Waldbaum’s so she remembers my allegiances, reinforced tonight. “Today was Opening Day, wasn’t it? Did you go to the game?” she asks. Did I go to the game? Why yes I did! Let me tell you about it.
It’s one more chance to extend Opening Day. I never want it to end.
Next Friday : Not quite a quarter-century since the No. 8 song of all-time came along.