Opening Day 2014
Opening Day. The celebration of American culture resounds more than the play on the field as the giant flag is unfurled during the National Anthem. There were no jets flying overhead this season as in years past because budget concerns have taken precedence over the pomp and ceremony befitting a great nation parading forth its treasure.
There have been ten Opening Days in Washington, DC now that baseball is back and I have been to them all. It is not a brag so much as an observation that this event is no longer new. Whether you remember the jets overhead, Dick Cheney or Barack Obama, tradition is beginning to take hold in Washington and memories are being made. The first Opening Day back in 2005 was a wonder to behold, like being a small child set free in the toy store for the first time. There was so much at which to gawk and no inkling of it ever becoming routine.
Opening Day will always be a wonder, but it has lost some of its luster just as it has lost the jets and the President throwing out the first pitch. Will there be presidents in the future who will cherish the event more than President Obama? One hopes so, although it is difficult to fathom how much a president risks opening himself up to a crowd of 40,000 these days. There are other parts of our culture that do not get talked about at ball games that the Secret Service must consider whether we like to think about them or not.
In 2005 there were dozens of magnotrometers–that’s what I am calling them–set up at every gate so that bags could be X-rayed and fans patted down and searched. Yet when George W. Bush stepped onto the field to cheers and adulation, you could tell that he was not totally certain of his safety despite the Swat Teams patrolling the rooftop at RFK Stadium.
It was all forgotten as soon as the field came into view. The emerald green grass splashed before your eyes like a wake up call from one hundred years ago when Calvin Coolidge threw out the first pitch in 1924 and went on to do the same for the World Series games at Griffith Stadium. Irish beer was on sale and flowing without cease as two comely lasses topped off the plastic cups that happy fans were taking away by the scores. Baseball is a diversion, an escape and we plunge into it without fear or regret because it promises the best of our nature will be on display for three hours.
As is the case every year, the teams line up along the foul lines and this year it was the Atlanta Braves introduced to polite applause. Polite had been forgotten by the fifth inning when left fielder Justin Upton allows an Ian Desmond double to sit beneath the wall padding as he yells to the umpires for an obstruction call. Desmond circles the bases for an inside-the-park home run, but he is called back after the first televised replay at Nationals Park goes against the home team. There should be a ground rule that on Opening Day no calls can go against the home team, but this time the call goes against the Nationals and the boos rain down on Upton for the remainder of the afternoon.
Desmond is thrown out trying to steal third and the home crowd groans again. The drunks are getting noisy and loud now. Encouraged by the angry crowd they become caricatures of themselves and agitprop for the banality of life as we sometimes experience it. The women sitting to our left mimic them quietly, but it is all drowned out by the sight of the two young boys standing in their seats waving their caps wildly in hopes of being seen on the Jumbotron, their parents smiling with pride, wondering if the boys are old enough to remember this event as something special years from now. The father is moving his family to the area and will work just down the street at the Navy Yard–where the shootings occurred last season. He is a submariner and his wife shares this fact proudly and you wonder whether she has thoughts of the shootings. Then you remember that several of the wounded survivors of the event threw out the ceremonial first pitch and you know that they have taken this assignment like any other, knowing all of the attendant risks.
There is risk a plenty on the field of play. The Nationals have lost their mojo after Desmond is thrown out. The Braves score only twice, but Washington squanders every chance to score save one and the home town crowd grows more quiet as the end approaches slowly but surely and no rally of the faithful can be mounted. Craig Kimbrel closes out another Atlanta victory in Washington, this time by a 2-1 margin and the scrappy women next to us file out and are followed by the Navy family all of whom deserved better.
Of the ten Opening Days Washington has seen since baseball came home to the nation’s capital, the Nationals have managed to win but four of the contests. It is fun to think back on those events. There was the first in 2005 against the Diamondbacks behind the cheerful visage of Livan Hernandez. Then there was another memorable one in 2008 when Nationals Park was brand new and Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer was celebrated for months. There have been wins in 2012 and 2013 when the team first began to set its sights on the Championship. Those Opening Day wins did not bring home the bacon, so we can only hope that our faithful nine take away from this experience a greater resolve. It is not easy to win Championships. It takes attention to detail and not being swept up in the accolades.
Congress may pass a resolution restricting bone-headed base-running on Opening Days hence forth and if they do not, they should. Regardless, there are still 158 games left to play in a season just beginning to unfold. There are many joys to anticipate, one of which is the many, many more Opening Days yet to come, ones where the crowds will leave with smiles on their faces savoring the home team’s victory, their bright children beaming with pride at what their parents have sacrificed to provide for them. And of course jets overhead. There should be jets roaring overhead.