Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Opening Day to remember

I love college football. Dallas Cowboys dominate Sunday’s in the fall. There is nothing more thrilling than the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. When asked what my favorite sport is, my response is usually ‘what season is it?’

But there is just something a little extra special about Opening Day. No matter what age and what level of baseball, Opening Day always had a special feeling to it. In Little League it was the one game everyone was introduced and ran out on the baselines just like the pros. One year we had Milo Hamilton come out and speak to us on Opening Day.

High school and college baseball all get started in early February. Little League gets going sometime in March and Major League Baseball usually gets going that first week in April. Each celebrates the first day of the season.

In college I made a point to get down to the Dome on Opening Day. If the Astros weren’t home, then I went to the home opener (we also always made it out a day or two later for magnetic calendar night -- very important). The tradition was always the same. It didn’t matter where I was sitting down for the first MLB game of the year, I always had a dog. Sometimes it was a “Dome Dog,” sometimes it was a dog cooked in my kitchen and for the last five years it has been a hot dog at “Fat Boys.”

For 14 years, opening day was also the start of what was to be another championship season for the Atlanta Braves. From 1992 to 2006, the Braves opened the season the same way, by unveiling the championship banner from the previous season. It became old hat. You started to take it for granted.

Opening day was always a great day for the Royals, Orioles, Pirates and Cubs fans, because there was the optimism. “Maybe this is going to be the year.” Opening Day for me was always me laughing at the experts who were predicting this was going to be the year a different team won the East. I knew they were going to be wrong. That was one of the joys of Opening Day. While most people’s season was going to be over by late July, I knew I was going to be rolling strong well into October.

The last few years have been a different story. Things have changed a bit in baseball and the Braves have not been part of the postseason. As a result, Opening Day didn’t have that same luster as in the past. There was no banner being hung at Turner Field. The question being asked now has been, are the Braves going to get back to the playoffs. As good as the Phillies (and Mets to an extent) have been, it was easy to see the answer was probably "no."

Monday however was a little different. No banner was being hung at Turner Field and the Phillies are pretty much considered the best team in the National League. So why did I feel an extra sense of excitement going into Monday? The Braves have had a good spring, but they usually do. No real big free agents came in during the offseason (Billy Wagner is a nice addition, but nothing to get overly excited about). Chipper is coming off a season where his batting average had dropped 100 points from the season before.

But I was really looking forward to the game against the Cubs. It didn’t take long to figure out why I was so excited. It was the arrival of Jason Heyward. He has been the story of the spring for the Braves. The can’t miss prospect who had played just 50 games above the Class A level. While I liked everything I had read about him, it was something that happened on August 7 of last year that had me excited about this season. I was at Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Ala. watching my third AA game in three nights. The Mississippi Braves were in town and we were sitting behind home plate. I had a great view of an absolute mammoth shot by Heyward. He hit a ball that I think landed sometime last week. He was just 19 at the time, but you could tell he was going to be a special player.

Heyward isn’t the reason I was watching the Monday afternoon game. I would have been watching because it was Opening Day. Heyward might be the reason I left work at 2 p.m. on Monday to be home by 3 so I could watch the game on my TV sitting on my couch.

When the lineup was announced, I was a little upset when I saw he was hitting in the seven-hole. Unless the Braves had a good first inning I was going to have to wait until the second to see him make his Major League debut. Well the Braves did have a good first inning, and Heyward got that chance to hit in the first. I think because the Braves scored three in the opening frame before his at bat, was actually good for him. He didn’t have time to think about the moment. He just stepped in the box and on the third pitch took a hack.

I had the windows open in the house and I think I could hear the Turner Field crowd roar from 800 miles away. At the very least, I know my neighbors could hear me. Replays where you could hear the fans chanting “Let’s go Heyward” just moments before connecting on a three-run bomb, gave me chills. I wrote one time about “the noise.” A moment in a game that gets the crowd and atmosphere in general to create a noise that "might swim in your ear canals and rustle your soul and electrify your skin and maybe even prolong your life." This was one of those moments.

Yes, there are still 161 more games to go, and the Braves are probably an outside shot at making the playoffs. But this season already seems to have a little more energy, a little more life. I am not going to go Cub fan on you and say that this is our year, but if the rest of the team can feed off the youthful exuberance of a 20-year old in the clubhouse who performed like a seasoned vet on opening day … maybe.

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