WASHINGTON – In the more than 150 years of its history, baseball has become a game of traditions. Singing “God Bless America” or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the seventh inning stretch, hot dogs and Cracker Jacks are only some of the things found at a ballpark on any given night.
There are, however, other unique more significant traditions. Teams play 162 regular season games each year, but there is just one first home game. Although Opening Day and its traditions have evolved over the years, there is no other day like it.
Fans all over the country circle the day on their calendars – the day get to finally dust off the old glove, put on the ball cap and head to the stadium for a brand new Major League Baseball season.
For the 11th time since baseball returned to the nation’s capital, the Washington Nationals opened their home season Thursday as they hosted the Florida Marlins in front of a sellout crowd.
“Opening Day is kind of considered a baseball holiday,” said Jacob Pomrenke, director of editorial content for the Society for American Baseball Research, in a phone interview. “I do think it’s a little bit different from all other sports. There is a long, long tradition of opening day being kind of a celebration.”
The tradition goes back generations, to baseball’s first professional team – the Cincinnati Reds, who have played at home for every season-opener except two. Accepted as unofficial annual holiday, Opening Day in Cincinnati includes a parade, tailgates and people missing work.
As Opening Day has gotten more popular, the tradition has expanded. Along with parades and missing work, it is also the only game of the year when each team’s full rosters are introduced before the game, as opposed to just the starters.
Steve Schoebel, Bill Rivers, Bill Bass and Jeff Trollinger, all 69 years old, grew up in Washington, still live here, and have been friends since their elementary school days. Rivers, an engineer, is the only one of the four who is not retired. He arranged their trip to the ballpark in a limousine.
“It’s about people who are friends for 60-plus years,” Rivers said about the special bond these four little-league teammates share. “Baseball was our life. We loved baseball, it invigorated us. It kept us alive.”
Bass remembered his last Opening Day game in 1966 when the Senators were Washington’s baseball team, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey filled in for President Lyndon Johnson for the first pitch.
In 1910 President William H. Taft started the presidential first-pitch tradition.
For the next century, the president threw out the first pitch most years. But from 1961 to 2005, after the Senators decamped to Minnesota and became the Twins, the president had to go elsewhere. Vice President Joe Biden threw out the first pitch in 2009, and President Barack Obama made his only Opening Day pitch in Washington in 2010.
Unlike when Bass was growing up, today MLB rotates the teams who play at home on the first day of the season. He’d like to see Washington go back to hosting the very first baseball game of the year.
“We should have the first game here,” he said. “I think Washington should have Opening Day.”
Opening Day has become more like Opening Week, even though teams promote their own first home game as Opening Day.
“It definitely has turned into more of an opening week than anything else,” Pomrenke said. “They want to make sure every team gets to do that. Not just the first game of the year but every team’s first game can be something special.”
Teams like the Nationals that started the season with two wins on the road in Atlanta can still come home and have a special celebration with their fans.
Washington lost its Opening Day game Thursday 6-4, but the result was not the most important aspect of the day. In the end, Opening Day comes down to one thing, the celebration of baseball itself. Because as Rivers very eloquently said, “We’ve all been sitting around for a cold-ass winter and finally baseball has arrived.”
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