There’s nothing quite like Opening Day. There are times when baseball has more of the spotlight, such as during the World Series when TV ratings are highest, or during the All-Star break, when all other major American sports are on hiatus and baseball is the only show in town. Sports like hockey and basketball are in full swing when MLB kicks off it season, but Opening Day is still the most special day on the baseball calendar.
Those who love baseball generally tend to romanticize it, and when the first cracks of the bat and the first glimpses of bright green outfield grass finally arrive on Opening Day, it’s hard to blame them. No other sport brings an aura of re-birth, of hope, the way baseball does.
Anything is possible when the season begins. This could be the year the Mariners end their playoff drought, the year the Indians break their 69-year championship the drought, the year the Brewers or the Braves or the Twins or any number of rebuilding teams step forward and surprise us all.
But, during this time of limitless possibility, it’s always important to remember to not overreact. While it might be tempting to draw conclusions at the beginning of the year, after waiting all winter for meaningful games, real numbers, actual honest-to-goodness baseball, be sure not to get ahead of yourself based on the first week of games.
Recent history is littered with big early performances, players who seemed to plant a flag on Opening Day to state that things were different, that this was the start of a grand new year, only to fall flat after the early buzz. Look no further than last year. As a Yankee fan, I can attest to the amount of times Starlin Castro was referred to as record-setting during the first week of last season, when he set a franchise record for most RBI’s in a player’s first two games with the Yankees. Castro hit just .264/.295/.416 after his hot start on his way to a mediocre first year in the Bronx.
Or consider the Yankees’ rivals, the Red Sox, on Opening Day 2015. The Red Sox were preseason favorites according to many projection systems, having made huge cash outlays to sign Pablo Sandoval and to bring back Hanley Ramirez after a decade out of the organization. Ramirez crushed two home runs that Opening Day, including a Grand Slam, to announce his triumphant return. He went on to hit .293/.341/.659 during an excellent April that had Boston a-buzz. Then, he hit .183/.211/.239 in the second half, the Red Sox limped to a last place finish in the AL East, and the team is now grappling with the Sandoval and Ramirez deals that look questionable, to say the least.
Or even go back to 2013, when a 20-year-old Bryce Harper, coming off a great rookie season in which he made his first All-Star game, smashed a home run on Opening Day. It was soon declared Harper would follow in Mike Trout’s footsteps as the game’s next sensational young player. Harper went on to hit nine homers that April, batting an incredible .340/.430/.720 in the process. But he would only hit 11 post-April home runs, his line falling to .254/.351/.420 over that span, as Harper dealt with multiple injuries. It would, of course, be a couple more years until Harper genuinely broke out.
After spending spring training cooking up countless different narratives, it’s vital to resist the urge to confirm or deny those narratives right off the bat. If, say, Harper hits a bomb on Opening Day en route to a hot start, it will be easy to confirm the narrative that he’s back to his 2015 form. If Jake Arrieta gives up five runs in his first start and has a rocky first month, it will be tempting to say he will never return to anything close to his 2015 Cy Young season. If Jason Heyward records three hits on Opening Day and bats .600 in the first week, observers will undoubtedly declare that his offseason swing changes were a success. As tempting as it may be, we just can’t jump to these conclusions during the first week.
The spring air and the sights and sounds of a new baseball season can make one eager to believe that some things have changed, that the players that have gotten off on the right foot really have corrected something, taken a significant step forward, made The Leap. It’s human nature. Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to not change, to actually just stay the same, and many of the players that look primed to breakout next week will in reality prove to be exactly who they’ve always been.
Rather than trying to read too deeply into the results of Opening Day and the first week, simply just enjoy that baseball is back in our lives. My personal favorite thing about the beginning of the season is the round-the-clock nature of the early proceedings. Games start at 1 pm eastern nearly every day, and stretch well past midnight on the east coast as the west coast games don’t end until past 10 pm local time. It lends the first week or two a NCAA March Madness -type feeling, where games are constantly starting and ending, the exciting climaxes of certain games crossing over with the auspicious beginnings of others.
That constant sense of baseball soon fades, as we settle into our routines and as the afternoon games start to fade back towards night. By my count, the first week of April will feature 45 games that begin prior to 7 pm EST. That number falls by nearly 40% in the first week of May. Some fans have called for more afternoon games, but that likely will never happen as teams desire to play more games during the primetime hours of early-to-mid evening. So, the persistent hum of baseball at all times is just another thing to appreciate about the beginning of the MLB season.
Baseball season is long, and by summer the fans and teams and players will have settled into the groove of baseball every night. But for now, we are not settled. We are eager, excited like children once more, ready for the return of the thing we love. Don’t be so eager to jump to conclusions once the hits and strikeouts and double plays start pouring in, rather simply appreciate that those runs and doubles and outfield assists are finally back. Our long national nightmare (or at least one of them) is over: baseball is here.