Saturday, April 4, 2015

Right Where We Left Off: The Open Book of Opening Day

Stories never truly begin. Any tale of merit is an extension and convergence of plot lines months, years, decades in the making. So goes the baseball season. Sunday night, the 2015 season will begin under the unconventional lights of Wrigley Field. Over the subsequent seven months, the same game that has been played professionally nearly 150 years will ebb with the tide of America's infatuation with relaxing summer days and communal activity. New story lines and surprises will appear almost daily. Underdogs will rise and favorites will crumble. Ultimately only one team can win the final game of the year. Last October, the San Francisco Giants survived the Kansas City Royals in a seven game classic after a wild postseason. There isn't a soul alive who can look you in the eye and say in all truth that they could foretell that match-up before the season started. So here we are again with a clean slate, another summer of possibility and hope.

Last year, we traveled to minor league ball fields in Comstock Park, Michigan and Fort Wayne, Indiana and discovered what makes small city ball so special. In the span of a week, I managed to visit an Independent League team in Gary, Indiana, a Triple-A team in Indianapolis, Indiana, and finally return back to where professional baseball began in Cincinnati, Ohio. But it wasn't all about travel and trying strange new food. The game taught me the value of individual moments and how important stand alone memories can be within a lifetime. Yes, that seems a bit over-romanticized, but lets be honest- if you've been reading my work for the last two years, it's expected.

The 2014 season opened rather flat, with a set of games between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia. This year's first game is also somewhat strange, but in a very different way. Wrigley Field, now entering its 101st season of operation, will host the first game of the MLB season. This would not be all that notable, if not for one aspect- the game will be played at night. Granted, this is only their 27th full season with the proper equipment to host a night game, the fact still remains that the Cubs have never opened their season with a night game. The Cubs and Cardinals have played 2,344 times, with Chicago taking 1,189, or 51.1% of the wins. It's a welcome change from the strange location openers we've seen in the past, and a rivalry with this much history is a great introduction to the season. As I say every year, I believe the season should start with a day game in Cincinnati, for all of the historic reasons, but I'm not going to complain that my favorite team is playing in prime time to start the year.

After a World Series performance for the ages, the spotlight is most definitely on Madison Bumgarner. At Twenty-five, Bumgarner is now a three-time World Series Champion and a World Series most valuable player. His regular season numbers, in comparison to those in October, seem rather pedestrian. No one is going to complain with his performance, after all the main goal is to do exactly what the Giants have done so far in the 2010s. What the soft-spoken lefty can do now is catapult himself into the best-pitcher-alive conversation with Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez.

Jose Fernandez, the rookie pitching sensation of 2013, should return to action in June or July, nearly a year after Tommy John surgery ended is sophomore season. Pitcher injuries seem to be crippling rotations on a regular basis these days. This makes forecasting success that much more difficult. Fringe playoff hopefuls like the White Sox could quickly be wiped off of the map if Sale or Jeff Samardzija went down for an extended period of time.

A team like the Nationals, my World Series pick for the fourth consecutive year, could let another opportunity slip if Jordan Zimmerman or Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez or Max Scherzer... oh my goodness they're loaded. Okay well it might take several twists of fate to bring that rotation down, but the possibility is still there. After all, a monster pitching staff doesn't always equate a championship. Take the 2004 Chicago Cubs for example. Maddux, Wood, Prior, Clement, Zambrano. They were called "The Five Aces" and they didn't even make the playoffs. Believe me, it still stings. The legendary trio of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in the mid-1990s only amassed ONE World Series championship. If there's proof of anything in this, it's that the windows of success aren't open very long. Washington's best chance may have been in 2012, when they decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg for the postseason. The decision may not have mattered, but when the Nats fell to St. Louis in a deciding fifth game after being unable to hold a two run lead in the ninth inning, there were whispers that it may have been their only chance.

What's left is a story waiting to be written. Each pitch can change the course of the season. A base hit leads to a rally. A rally leads to a win. A win leads to a streak. Then a playoff spot. Then two teams that few if anyone could have expected to be there, are playing for the title. The summer is long, and the baseball season will rise and fade quicker than we'd all like to believe. Along the way, everything that makes the game and summer time great- the relaxed, pastoral days of decades gone by -will undoubtedly come with memories that will be worth well more than the cost of a ticket, a beer, and some nachos.

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