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In Ballpark of the Mind, There Exists an Ideal Opening Day

In the ballpark of the mind, there is an ideal Opening Day, that day when – we don’t need no stinkin’ equinox – spring truly begins.

Mine took place in 1981.

It was an uncommonly warm early April day in New England, temperature in the mid-sixties, sun shining on those of us lucky enough to have snagged a seat in the bleachers. Thousands of winter-white arms were bared for the first time that day, down jackets and wool sweaters put aside for bursts of bright cotton and teases of skin.

I had been to Opening Day at Fenway Park several times before. In 1975, I saw Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro create the season’s first run with a double steal, Henry Aaron play his first American League game, and George Scott hit a line drive that would have broken my ribs if it hadn’t hit the railing at my side.

That day was frigid, like most Fenway openers, and I took northern comfort from a companion’s smuggled flask. Still, the air was full of hope, winter had passed, the home team was undefeated, and we had no way of knowing that the season would fall a hair’s breadth short of fulfilling all those dreams, culminating as it did in a World Series marked by Carlton Fisk’s midnight home run and a narrow seventh-game defeat.

Six years later, Fisk was the hero again, only this time in the uniform of the Chicago White Sox. A management blunder had resulted in premature free agency for Fisk and Fred Lynn, and he had left Boston for the team that, coincidentally, was scheduled to visit Fenway on Opening Day. We laid the blame squarely on the front office, and roared for Fisk – that most stolid and New Hampshire-Yankee of ballplayers -- each time he came to bat. We cheered the Red Sox, too, of course, but mostly we basked in the sun and the day and the promise of good times to come.

All sports have first games, but only baseball has Opening Day. (And I’m sorry, ESPN and MLB, but Opening Night is not the same thing.) True to its northern roots, the baseball season begins with a vernal awakening in concert with the green buds that dot the trees, thrives in the ripening heat of summer, and culminates in a blaze of autumnal glory before hunkering down for the chilly winter. No other sport is as attuned to the rhythms of nature (or would be if it didn’t treat its open-air parks as television studios by playing night games too early and too late). Nonetheless, it’s that sense of renewal and revival that brightens the face of the fan each April, celebrating both the start of a long journey and the reclaiming of a friendship.

Anything is possible on Opening Day. Consider:

In 1969, four new expansion teams each won its first game, putting all four in first place. (One of the four, the Montreal Expos, defeated the New York Mets, a team that lost its first eight Opening Day games, and actually won a World Series before it won on Opening Day.)

In 1940, Cleveland’s Bob Feller pitched a no-hitter, the only one on Opening Day. This gave rise to the trick trivia question about the one game in which every player on a team had the same batting average at the end of the game as he did at the beginning: Feller’s opponents, the Chicago White Sox, with each hitter at .000. (Not technically, I know, but still.)

In 1994, Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs for the Cubs on Opening Day, raising hopes of a special season for him and his team. He hit just five more in the major leagues, and the Cubs finished in last place. (The outburst by Rhodes was not a total fluke; he has just entered his thirteenth season in Japan, where he holds the career record for home runs by a foreign player, with 442 through 2008.)

And in 1981, in the eighth inning with Boston leading 2-0, Carlton Fisk lined a three-run homer into the netting above the left-field wall, providing one last thrill for his New England fans, who stood and cheered an opposing home run for perhaps the only time in Fenway history. Fisk’s shot provided the winning margin for the White Sox, and we all left the ballpark happy and glowing.

Baseball may be designed to break your heart, but it usually puts a song in it first. That’s what Opening Day is all about.

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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