Mon April 1, 2013
Opening Day: A celebration of baseball
Somewhere in Great American Ball Park today, there will be many a little boy or little girl, dressed in red from head to toe, bundled up in Reds blanket, watching in awe at his or her first Opening Day.
Seeing their heroes play on the green grass – Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and the rest.
They will be sitting next to a mother or father, who had their own childhood heroes – the wire-to-wire, World Series champion Reds – thinking of their own childhood heroes – Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo.
Or maybe a grandparent, whose Reds memories stretch back through the days of the Big Red Machine and to Crosley Field, where they watched the elegant grace of Vada Pinson playing centerfield, the raw power of Frank Robinson, the young Cincinnati kid who played like his hair was on fire, Pete Rose.
There will be so many memories brought through the gates of Great American Ball Park today. And so many memories made in those seats at the ball park on the river.
Memories. Tradition. Love of baseball; and the Cincinnati Reds. Passed along from generation to generation.
That’s what today is about.
Twenty-eight cities have major league baseball teams; 30 teams have home openers every year. Cincinnati is among the smaller of those towns.
But there is no place in the world of baseball where Opening Day is spelled in capital letters. Nowhere else where it is not just a date on a baseball pocket schedule, but a holiday.
A baseball holiday.
As Sparky Anderson once put it, “ain’t no other place in America got that.”
Perhaps it is because baseball has deeper roots here than most cities. It was, after all, the home to the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who went 57-0 that season, playing their home games at a tiny ball park called the Union Grounds, which was located approximately where the esplanade of the Museum Center at Union Terminal is today.
Perhaps it's because it is a game that has been played on sandlots all over the city by generations of kids since the 1860s; and because it has produced so many young ballplayers who went on to major league fame – like the little Rose kid, a Sedamsville “river rat,” playing on the dirt field of Boldface Park on River Road.
And perhaps it is just a love of the Reds that has been passed down from generation, from the era of Hall of Famer Edd Roush, who led the 1919 Reds to their first World Series championship, to the era of another great left-handed hitter who has “future Hall of Famer” written all over him, Joey Votto, who could lead the Reds to their next World Series championship.
But the one thing that makes Opening Day in Cincinnati unique is the Findlay Market Parade.
A parade! A baseball parade! Who would do that?
Cincinnati would. And it is the kick-off to a day of celebration, all leading up to the Reds charging out on the field at Great American Ball Park and that first pitch of the season being thrown.
Today will be the 94th annual Findlay Market Parade, marching its way down Race Street through Over-the-Rhine, making a left turn at Fifth Street and passing by the throngs of people who will pack Fountain Square.
But the tradition of an Opening Day parade in Cincinnati predates even the Findlay Market Association.
The tradition goes back to 1890, when John T. Brush, a lawyer who owned the Reds, created a small parade, meant to lead people to the ball park and the ticket windows.
It was a small affair, consisting of a military band leading two horse-drawn wagons – one carrying the Reds team and another carrying their opponents that day, the Cleveland Spiders.
In the early 20th century, the parade was taken over by groups of Reds rooters, who would snake through downtown with horns and noisemakers, whooping and hollering for the home team.
The Findlay Market Association joined in 1920; and eventually took over the parade, building it into the grand event it is today. At first, it was a small affair – always ending inside the ball park with the Findlay Market Association presenting the home team manager with a bouquet of flowers, a tradition that lives on to this day.
It really exploded into the grand event it is today after 1970, after the Reds moved from Crosley Field to the huge, multi-sport, Astro-turfed Riverfront Stadium.
But as grand and glorious as the parade is, it is prelude – prelude to the game itself, which, even on the coldest of Opening Days, marks the beginning of summer for Reds fans.
Some of us are old enough to remember April 8, 1963, when 28,896 fans crowded into old Crosley Field to see a highly-touted rookie named Rose charge out of the dugout and take his place at second base – his first steps toward becoming a baseball legend.
We remember Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium in 1974, when the great Henry Aaron launched a home run for the Braves – the home run that tied him with Babe Ruth as the all-time home run king.
And we remember the Opening Day of 1985, when a sell-out crowd filled Riverfront Stadium, after two straight years of less than capacity Opening Day crowds. They were there to see that same player, Rose, who had come back the previous August to be the Reds’ player-manager, after five years away from his home town team.
We remember with incredible sadness the Opening Day of 1996 at Riverfront, when a sell-out crowd was shocked beyond belief, stunned into silence, when, seven pitches into the game, home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and died of a massive heart attack on the field.
And we remember moments of delirious joy. Who can forget Opening Day in 2003, the first at the brand-spanking new Great American Ball Park? Or 2005, when the Reds came back from a 6-3 deficit to win 7-6 over the New York Mets, thanks to a walk-off home run by third baseman Joe Randa – the first walk-off home run in Reds’ Opening Day history.
Who knows what memory we will take home with us today?
That is the beauty of Opening Day in Cincinnati.