LLOYD GRAY: The layered meanings of Opening Day

Twenty-seven seasons ago, baseball writer Thomas Boswell published a book, “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.”
Anyone who grew up living and breathing baseball has no trouble understanding that title. In a long ago day with fewer distractions, the rhythm of many boys’ lives – mine among them – was set to the beat of baseball.
We played it during the day, all day, either with our whiffle ball and adhesive-taped plastic bats in somebody’s yard, or with our dollar hardballs and wooden bats down at the little league field.
We listened to it at night on the radio and watched it on TV – Saturday and Sunday afternoons only back then, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese on CBS, somebody less fun on NBC, with both carrying the Yankees way too much.
We pored over the box scores in the morning newspaper and spent our allowance on five-packs of Topps baseball cards with flat slabs of stale pink bubble gum. That’s how we learned the players, their stats, their nicknames and all the other interesting stuff about them.
We memorized all the starting lineups. Name a team and I can probably recite who its eight position starters were in 1964. Our minds retain the really important information.
When you live this way, the five or so months of the off-season is life in its dormant stage. It’s not “real time.” Sure, you go to school and do all the things you usually do, maybe even play and pay attention to other sports. But life really, truly cranks up again on Opening Day.
The weeks leading up to it were always heralded by the announcement in the paper of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, followed by the appearance on the drug store magazine rack of Street & Smith’s pre-season edition and a host of lesser imitators. Then about a week out, Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue – with its actual color photos of the stars or heralded rookies and its predictions of team finishes – would arrive in the mailbox. The anticipation was heart-pounding, and the arrival of the season’s start was slower than Christmas.
Opening Day 2011 is Thursday. Fifty years or so after my initial awareness of the day’s significance, the gift of the start of Major League Baseball season comes wrapped in nostalgia.
It’s about the memories of a less complicated stage of life, about childhood’s eternal pull, and about a time when we knew less about, and thought more of, our big-time athletes. But it’s also about a uniquely graceful game and how it weaves itself into the emotional complexity of our lives.
Another baseball book of the same era as Boswell’s “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” was Donald Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons.” I identified with that title, too, harking back to late afternoon or early twilight sessions – Dad as catcher to my poor Bob Gibson imitation, calling balls and strikes, as first baseman lobbing grounders to his shortstop or tossing popups for me to lose in the clouds.
He took me to St. Louis that first time in 1962, as his father had taken him, and I can still remember the utter exhilaration when I emerged through the ramp and saw that brilliant green field. We went there many more times together, and to other ballparks in other places. And later, he went with my son and me, and my brother and his sons, too, as his father had done with his son and grandsons.
These are the associations that make it impossible to regard baseball as merely a passing obsession of my youth, or to think it unworthy of attention in adulthood because it’s just a game.
I love the game itself, of course, and I love my team, even when its star – Albert the Great – has declined to put us at ease because the $25 million a year over eight years the Cardinals are reportedly offering when his contract runs out at the end of this season isn’t enough.
But I’ll forgive the disappointing avarice of this otherwise model sportsman. My kids have grown up with him. My daughter has a Pujols jersey. He has been the source of countless joyous childlike outbursts among the non-children in our household over the last 10 years. He has helped keep us young.
More than anything, he plays with unparalleled excellence the game my father taught me for the team my father taught me to love. That is more than enough.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

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