The 2017 baseball season officially commences this Sunday. With the thought of real baseball just hours away, it’s time for my annual speech about what Opening Day means to me.
Granted, I never started a season coming off winning a World Series. During my baseball life, every Opening Day to me was a “Wait ‘til this year moment” – at least until it was time to start looking toward next year.
What is Opening Day?
Opening Day is a day of hope. It doesn’t matter what your record was the year before … or what your club did (or didn’t do) over the offseason … or what happened during spring training. Winning the Cactus League doesn’t come with a parade route.
Opening Day is a moment in time. It’s really just one day. Everybody is 0-0. And then it quickly becomes a reality check. If your team really isn’t very good, there are 161 more of these games to follow.
Opening Day is a day when I literally kissed the ground, whether I was in Chicago or on the road – as I finally was released from that purgatory known as spring training. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Arizona were great year after year. But spring training, from start-to-finish, becomes a whole lot of Groundhog Day and watching paint dry all rolled into one package. It’s a long time away from your own bed. It’s a long time away from family and friends. And no matter how nice the new spring training facilities have become, nothing beats the feel of walking onto the diamond of a big league ballpark on Opening Day – especially a cathedral like Wrigley Field.
Opening Day is a day to remember Ron Santo’s toupee. One of my all-time Ron Santo moments was the infamous Shea Stadium “Opening Day Fire” of 2003 when Ron’s hairpiece nestled against an overhead heating unit and started smoking. The irony of it all: Ron’s least favorite city and least favorite ballpark (remember 1969?), and this was the location where his hairpiece started smoldering. To top it off (no pun intended), Steve Stone was in attendance to witness the blessed event. I wish I had a recording of his word-for-word account, as I bumped into Stoney outside the visiting TV booth just seconds after it happened. Steve’s quick recap featured something along the lines of: “Hey Chuck, if it smells like dead squirrel, go check the bathroom. Ron’s hair just caught fire. It looks like someone took a divot out of his forehead.”
Opening Day is a day to reflect back on all the third basemen who tried to fill Santo’s shoes. From Santo’s last year with the Cubs (1973) until Aramis Ramirez’s arrival in a mid-season trade 30 years later, a mind-boggling 18 different players were season-opening starters at third base for the Cubs – Bill Madlock (1974-1976), Steve Ontiveros (1977-1980), Ken Reitz (1981), Ryne Sandberg (1982), Ron Cey (1983-1985), Manny Trillo (1986), Keith Moreland (1987), Vance Law (1988-1989), Luis Salazar (1990), Gary Scott (1991-1992), Steve Buechele (1993-1995), Jose Hernandez (1996), Kevin Orie (1997-1998), Gary Gaetti (1999), Shane Andrews (2000), Bill Mueller (2001), Chris Stynes (2002) and Mark Bellhorn (2003).
Opening Day is a meteorologist’s delight. It’s a time when the Chicago weather typically is beautiful for the home opener, followed by a 30-degree temperature drop the next day.
Opening Day is a day to show off a farmer’s tan. After six-plus weeks under the Arizona sun, your exposed parts brown very nicely. I haven’t been in Mesa since 2012 – but my right wrist continues to feature the white watch line accrued from my 20-plus spring trainings in the Valley.
Opening Day is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Thanks to re-reading my diary last year from the Cubs’ season-opening trip to Japan in 2000, I found the game notes I wrote for the media. How about this nugget … only six players from the Cubs’ 1998 25-man National League Division Series postseason roster were members of the 2000 25-man Opening Day roster — Felix Heredia, Matt Karchner, Kevin Tapani, Mark Grace, Henry Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa (Kerry Wood and Glenallen Hill began 2000 on the disabled list). The Division Series and Opening Day were less than 18 months apart.
Opening Day is a snapshot. The players getting introduced in pregame ceremonies just happen to be the 25 players on the active roster that day. Every year, you headed to spring training in mid-February. The reality was – after all that time – the only non-injury battles that really mattered for the start of the season were for the 23rd, 24th and 25th spots on the Opening Day roster. And those guys rarely made it through April.
Opening Day is a pinnacle day – a day that can’t be taken away from those that were part of the festivities. No matter what, Tarrik Brock, Cole Liniak and Danny Young can always say they were on a major league Opening Day roster (2000 in Tokyo). Hector Villanueva can always say he was an Opening Day starter at catcher (1992). Jim Bullinger, who struggled as a minor league infielder, was a major league Opening Day starting pitcher (1995). Jose Nieves was the Opening Day starter at shortstop in Japan in 2000.
Opening Day is a day to reminisce about Tuffy Rhodes. For one magnificent afternoon in 1994, the baseball gods smiled upon Tuffy and watched him go deep three times off Doc Gooden. Tuffy peaked as a Cub that afternoon; heck, he hit only five more big league homers in 94 more games in ’94 and none in 23 games in 1995. But he went to Japan in 1996 and became a baseball god there, hitting 464 homers in 13 seasons overseas.
Opening Day is a day that winds up being – no matter how you try to avoid it – the excuse for the way the rest of the season goes. I can’t help but think of April 5, 2010, when the Cubs scored three times in the top of the 1st inning in Atlanta – only to have the Braves put up a six-spot in the bottom half of the frame. Just like that, the “gut punch” season began. Three straight winning seasons, including division championships in 2007 and 2008, quickly became a distant memory.
Opening Day is a day that puts a smile on my face. I remember Jerome Walton, fresh out of Double-A, trying to contain his excitement prior to the 1989 Opening Day festivities. Mesa ’89 was the last spring training I missed until 2013. I remember getting the big bear hug from Jerome prior to the season opener. I had met Jerome for the first time at the Cubs Convention in January; his agent brought him into Chicago for the convention, and then inexplicably left Jerome at the event. It might not have been a big deal, except that Jerome was staying at his agent’s place that weekend. Not only was it Jerome’s first trip to Chicago, but he didn’t have his agent’s address. That Friday night in January, I volunteered to help Jerome find his agent’s condo. It only took about two hours of driving, literally going block-by-block until landmarks started ringing bells for him. If I only had thought of driving past The Second City and Pipers Alley 90 minutes earlier … sigh. But it created a great bonding moment. And Jerome went on to have a stellar 1989 campaign – winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award.