An old ball writer used to say all the poets came out on opening day. He’d say so caustically, which is how old ball writers tend to say things, like an overdone dialect.
He was put out, I presumed, over the longer walk from the parking lot, which was full on opening day, and the 20-deep line at lunch, and the shrunken elbow room in the press box, and the fact nobody cared much about what he thought of the fresh poets being around for a day.
He no doubt still says so, still feels it, protecting his turf from those who don’t know a manager from a coach or a balk from a, OK, a balk. As though the turf, from parking lot to desktop and back, were his. Most folks stopped paying him any mind thirty-some years ago.
If there is a time for poetry, or fat-fingered stabs at poetry, it is opening day. Long walks in woods, falling in love, falling out of love, justice, injustice, gardens with flowers and stuff, dying slowly, dying quickly, the first afternoon of baseball. That’s pretty much the list. Maybe an occasional bird teetering on the bust of a Titan war god.
Surely it’s a big day for literature when all the ball writers come out.
I’ve seen some opening days professionally, the last 15 in a row, maybe 10 others before those, and another 25 when the stabs at poetry stayed in my head, where they typically belonged anyway. There are no winners in any of those memories, strangely, or losers, no seasons made or unmade.
Baseball gets washed away most nights anyway. There’d be more tomorrow.
So come the iconic moments and the idiosyncratic ones, the short bouts of celebration and despair, and the beer and the banners. Sometimes life and baseball happen when everybody is watching, on the holiday that is opening day, in a place all dressed up with everywhere to go.
On opening day in 1947, summer clears its throat, gets a good stretch, and presents Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.
On opening day in about any year, the guy from the local paper shows up in the tie he owns.
On the final day of March, 2011, against the San Francisco Giants, Clayton Kershaw, 23, becomes every inch the pitcher who would win three Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award in four seasons, the first of 126 starts that would be this: 72-26, 2.11 ERA, 948 strikeouts and 200 walks. (Two years and a day later, Kershaw continues to be that pitcher, going nine innings and homering in a shutout of the Giants.)
On a Friday morning in the Bronx in 1998, the columnist arrives with a clunk and introduces himself. Five hours later, he closes his laptop and says, “OK, see you in October.” He knew a good team when he saw one.
On opening day, Willie Mays arrives in a New York Mets uniform. Tuffy Rhodes hits three home runs. Hank Aaron hits his 714th. Mo Vaughn falls down the stairs in Anaheim. On opening day in 1995, a strike ended. At Shibe Park in 1920, Babe Ruth became a Yankee.
In 1997, Marge Schott held out her hand as an offering to a stranger. At the moment the stranger identified himself as the new reporter for the local paper, she recoiled, retracted her hand and made a face and noise reserved for a mouthful of turned shrimp.
On opening day in 1940, Bob Feller threw a no-hitter. In 1998, Mark McGwire hit the first of 70 home runs. In 1973, nearly 75,000 people went to a Cleveland Indians game. (The next day, not 11,000 people went. The Indians finished in last place that year.) Walter Johnson threw seven shutouts on opening days. Opening days have been held in Mexico, Japan, Australia and Puerto Rico. Also Canada.
And in an Anaheim press box in 1993 a writer closed his computer, sighed and announced, “Well, they can’t all be horses--- if the first one isn’t horses---,” and the streak was on. So much for the poetry.
What’s left is holding the note, the “free” of the national anthem, for 15 seconds while everyone muses, “All right already, let’s get on with it.” Except that’s the performer’s moment of poetry. Everybody gets one. And the crowd, shoulder to shoulder and 40 or 50,000 deep, musters a tired wave, reaching for its theatrical flair. People who saw each other just the night before shake hands, because of the occasion, because it is an occasion, because there is formality to balloons and fireworks and doves and displays of military might and a ballgame whose final score will be forgotten by the time the loudspeakers cool.
Except for today. There will be no final scores. No handshakes. Not a single player will begin the finest season of his life. Or his most unworthy. The hopeful poets will stay home.
Baseball season wanders toward summer, without the baseball. There will be plenty said, plenty written, about what comes next, the particulars of a game swallowed by an event so much greater than itself.
None of it will be poetry. None of it will try.
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