Baseball: A Real Sport for Real People
I knew it from the moment Lee Smith retired Matt Nokes on a fly ball to right, finally closing the door on the Tigers in the top of the tenth. "Does Rice get up this inning?" someone asked. Someone else laughed. And I knew what had to happen.
They'd booed Rice when the Opening Day line-ups were announced, before he'd had a chance to prove himself one way or the other. They'd cheered Lee Smith before he'd had a chance to throw a pitch at Fenway Park, let alone yield a two-run homer to Alan Trammell.
So here's how things stood as the Red Sox headed off the field, two runs down: Jim Rice was due up fifth in the bottom of the tenth. That projected to two outs, two runners on and Rice at bat with the game on the line.
I knew what had to happen then. He'd swing, the ball would catch the breeze blowing out to left-center and would soar out of Fenway, and the crowd would rise--as one--cheering. Jim Rice would be a hero. The hecklers would stand, shamefaced. It had to happen.
I'M tired of arguments comparing Opening Day fans to Adam and Eve, pre-serpent. I'm tired of people insisting that Opening Day induces a blissful state of innocence and encourages fans to believe that any and all dreams may be realized.
Only on Opening Day are all teams and all fans equal, it's said. No wins, no losses, no slumps or streaks. Just the uniform prospect of 162 regular-season contests, the across-the-board possibility of post-season play, the common anticipation of endless summertime.
All of the above is splendid, soothing, exhilarating. But it's simply not true.
You see, baseball encourages, maybe even requires, extreme partisanship. That's because baseball is a family sport as much as it is a regional one. It's not unusual to discover Tigers fans in California, Cubs fans in Washington or Brooklyn Dodgers fans in 1988.
The tradition of fandom is passed along from one generation to the next. And it's hard to refute the gospel of previous generations with only apathy as your tool. A kid who truly wants to rebel against Yankee-rooting parents won't become a tennis enthusiast--he or she will become a Red Sox fan.
ALL of which goes to prove a simple maxim: all people who count in life have, at one time or another, formed a meaningful bond with a baseball team. With the fact firmly established that all real people are baseball fans, it becomes possible to analyze the concept of Opening Day in a proper context.
Everyone has a team. Every team, every year, has an Opening Day of its own. So statistics would suggest that only about one out of every 365 people is actually born on his or her team's Opening Day.
Only one person in 365 experiences Opening Day in a state of innocence. They're the chosen ones.
But even they are granted only one completely carefree Opening Day. One year after birth, they've got the memory of a season--complete with trades or injuries or championships or folds--behind them. One year after birth, they join the rest of humanity which--from the very start--has approached each Opening Day already tainted, biased, prejudiced and burdened with some knowledge of the past.
Yes, I am suggesting that infants understand what it means to be a baseball fan. Of course they do.
Now, I'll grant one exception to the one-time-only, one-in-365 theory. A guy on my pee-wee Little League team was born the day the Red Sox clinched the pennant in 1967. Naturally, he is a Red Sox fan, and naturally, he will probably approach baseball for the rest of his life with an unusually sunny outlook. Who wouldn't, born under such lucky stars?
But most of us are more complex than that. Most of us bring a little bit of baggage to each Opening Day--that sense of history that completely determines our outlook on the game.
We wake up on Opening Day just as we wake up on any other day. And if history has conditioned us to be rabid Jim Rice hecklers, nothing inherent in the concept of Opening Day is going to stop us.
To the Jim Rice heckler, Opening Day 1988 is not a beginning, but a point like any other point on an endless cycle of boos. The same holds true for all fans whose personal attachments to certain teams or certain players build and build with the passing of years.
There is no slate-wiping, no open-mindedness. Only accumulated history.
No true fan really believes, on the eve of Opening Day, that all teams are equal. The magic of an Opening Day lies not in innocence but in wisdom; Adam and Eve would have been lousy baseball fans.
For the record, I've always been a Jim Rice enthusiast, my worship growing with the seasons and partially in response to the boos. For the record, I'm also perfectly prepared to become a Lee Smith fan, given time and given his obvious abilities but for the moment, my deepest sympathies lie elsewhere. When I entered Fenway Park Monday, I knew just what had to happen--I had to cheer for Jim Rice.
Preconceptions make the fan. To root is to mix preconception with emotion and apply it to a chosen object. On Opening Day and every day.