Everyone Wins on Opening Day Because Baseball is Back!
Tobacco. Opening day is about tobacco. Not chaw, not dip, no pouches or tins, just straight tobacco. Bare fields of tobacco waiting to flourish. That is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of baseball and opening day. Growing up in a small farm town, a prosperous farm town with Mayflower families but buoyed by the strong backs of Jamaican immigrant workers and local 12-15-year-olds giddy for the first paycheck, tobacco is the one thing that tied everyone in the town together. But while the opening day of the baseball season was way too early to start picking the tobacco crops (either Shade or Broadleaf), it was tobacco that birthed baseball every spring. It was tobacco that gave every boy and girl in my town a chance to play and form their own memories. Opening day is about renewal. The chance to make amends for all that went wrong just a few short months prior. But more than anything else, it is a chance to start forming new memories… like memories of tobacco.
You see, the Little League fields where everyone played organized baseball were known as Christian Field (it is the picture for this article). The Christians were one of many families in town that owned tobacco fields. Yet they were kind enough to donate some of their lands and turn it into playing fields. Instead of utilizing the clay-rich land to produce more rolling tobacco (and money), they transformed that land into memories that could never be cut down by the blade of a machete. And baseball is all about memories. It is why everyone is a winner every year on opening day. We all win if we enjoy opening day because baseball is there to provide players and fans an everlasting link of memories to the generations that came before them.
From father to son, grandfather to granddaughter, baseball seems to have a rare hold on the memory. While tobacco is clearly a hyperspecific memory for yours truly, there are certain sights and sounds that will turn even the oldest baseball fan back into an excitable young boy or girl. Every baseball fan knows there is nothing like the “thwap” of well-oiled leather engulfing an orb of cowhide. Or the miniature explosion of a round bat hitting a round ball squarely. All of these beautiful bombs of auditory pleasure have their own soundtrack though. Sometimes the musical backdrop can bring back confusing thoughts, like “why would someone name their child ‘Runaround Sue?'” Other times there is no complexity to the soundtrack; just “put me in coach“–I got this.
The sounds of baseball memories produce the greatest of smiles, but the sights are sometimes even better. There are the perfectly manicured fields–for the moment unblemished–but soon to be destroyed by thousands upon thousands of spikes. There are the brand new hats, freshly out of the box and still too stuff to get a proper curve or bend (and yes, flat-brimmed hats on a baseball field are dumb). Or, my personal favorite, the bright-white home plate of Opening Day. As a catcher (a halfway decent one when given the chance to play), there was no sight better than Home Plate on opening day.
Home plate offered all of the promises, challenges, and questions of a new season: how much would it hurt to swing a bat by the end of the season with a destroyed thumb ligament from too many wild pitchers, what stupid jokes and comments would you have to create on the fly when a pitcher was imploding on the mound and needed to stop thinking and just throw the damn ball, but more important than anything else, can we get a first-pitch strike? All of those questions would be answered in the coming months, but for those brief moments when the man on the bump had yet to throw even his first warm-up toss, the possibilities were endless.
The idea of endless possibilities is the beauty of baseball. The game does not end until you are leading at or after the 27th out of the game. There is no clock. For some that think baseball drags on too long, this is a bad thing. For others, it allows for reminiscing and leisure activities. Activities like enjoying the smells and tastes of Opening Day. The smell of smoke wafting up from grills, and bunches of hot dogs and polish sausages simmering and waiting to be devoured (yes to grilled peppers and onions). These are the things that connect baseball fans through the generations. Maybe it is that first candy of the season. “FIVE AIRHEADS FOR A QUARTER!!!” (Orange and Mystery Flavor or GTHO). Or it could very well be that first soda (adult or otherwise). But one snack stands out above the fray… sunflower seeds.
Oh. You can tell a hardcore baseball fan and baseball player from a normal member of society. Ask them to enjoy some seeds. Do they throw a few in their mouth or did they just take a handful and shovel them in like a vacuum with a broken “off” switch? Salted or Ranch? David’s or BIGS? Get out of here with that Planters amateur hour. Watch them as they deftly maneuver the wad of seeds in their mouth and spit them out one-by-one. The best somehow constantly spitting the seeds into an ever-increasing molehill of detritus. A little gross when you think about it, but much easier to clean up after the game (the laziest and smartest, of course, dispensing with their seeds into a dixie cup). Seeds. Seeds everywhere. Seeds are baseball.
Which brings us back to tobacco. With all the downtime in baseball, you need something to keep you busy. For almost all, it is seeds. For the children, it is Big League Chew (OH MY GAHD YOU HAVE GRAPE?!?! Can I have some?). Fortunately for the dentists of America, the overwhelming majority of top-end ballplayers choose tobacco. Pouches of Redman, or tins of “Cope,” eating away at the gumlines of ballplayers across this great country. It is a vice–one Major League Baseball fruitlessly tries to ban–but adults will always find ways to engage in vices. We are all free-willed individuals capable of making our own decisions, both good and bad. Try to legislate it away, and ballplayers will adapt like they always do. Unless it is the shift. But maybe there is a solution to both problems; what if Rob Manfred says anybody that beats the shift by going oppo gets a month-pass to chew and dip as he pleases? No matter. Baseball will keep moving forward.
A blown sacrifice bunt, the perfect 2-1 changeup to induce a double-play ball, or maybe even the walk-off balk. Nobody knows what will happen this season. Maybe the Red Sox will repeat (ALL of Boston sure thinks so and is already in the baseball spirit). Or will the magic of last year disappear in the dust? There are only a few things that are assured: home runs will be hit, diving plays will be made, and batters will strikeout… and strikeout… and strikeout. But that is the beauty of baseball. The memories that are made on this Opening Day will be brand new. But they will have a connection to the memories of 2018… to 2004… to 1918. They will be the same types of memories your mother or father had, which are the same types of memories their parents had. This is the sport that is forever changing but stays the same. It is why Opening Day is so special. As we take in all the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of a new season we are reminded that this season is beautiful, like every season before it. We remember those who are no longer here to enjoy it, but while that seat might no longer be occupied, those memories are still there, and baseball is still here to help us remember and smile.
IT IS OPENING DAY BABY!!!!