The countdown is on for Opening Day 2016. It’s like Christmas for baseball junkies and the time has come to get our fix.
For teams and fans alike, opening day is a new beginning, a fresh start. Even fans in Tampa and Seattle think they have a chance for a good season. For 20 years in a row it was the one day Pirates fans could look at the standings and see the Pirates above the St. Louis Cardinals even if it was only because of alphabetical order. Since the Clint Hurdle era began, though, there is legitimate reason for optimism.
The spectacle of opening day itself is for amateur baseball fans, like New Year’s Eve is for beer-drinkers. Some people go hard one day; true fans and drinkers (sometimes they’re the same people) know it’s just the beginning of a long season. I am always priced out of opening-day tickets. The same people who buy up these seats are ones who hog the playoff tickets, too. I’m more of a day-after-opening-day kind of guy — sitting in the cold April rain with 9,000 fans and wondering where the extra 25,000 people who were here the day before went. The best part about opening day? Knowing there’s nothing but baseball for the next six months.
This opener is special. It’s on national television, and the very first game of the entire Major League Baseball slate. We used to get on national television for hitting a sausage mascot (Randall Simon) or because a rookie phenom (Stephen Strasburg) was making his debut against the Pirates. Now the Bucs are there because they’re good. Three straight playoff appearances have given them a little street cred. We don’t just see Pirates hats in old Chuck D videos, but all over the country and throughout South Korea. The North Koreans must hate us; they’re probably Cardinals fans.
This is the 15th opener at PNC Park. Past starting pitchers for the Pirates included Todd Ritchie, Kip Wells, Erik Bedard and Ron Villone. But that’s why opening day is so great: Even with those clowns we still thought we might have a chance each year. Francisco Liriano gets the nod this year for the third time in a row. The last Bucco to get that honor was Doug Drabek, more than 20 years ago.
For most Pittsburgh sports fans, Steelers training camp in 90-degree heat in Latrobe is still more exciting, but at least this is a closer second than it used to be. The Pirates’ first opponents of the season are the hated St. Louis Cardinals. The Bucs won 98 games last year but still finished as a runner-up to the Cards. They are like the more successful brother who always one-ups you. Plus they cheat like the Patriots do, but nobody calls them out for it. They spied on the Houston Astros for a long time. That would be like Louis CK stealing material from Pauly Shore. The Cardinals are the second-most successful franchise in baseball history and tried to steal from the Astros, who are one of the least successful franchises ever. Were they trying to get into the mind of a perennial loser?
Yes, the Cardinals will contend again this year, as always, and the Cubs, who last year won 97 games, got even better. Hopefully at some point in the season they’ll realize they are the Cubs, the losingest losers in baseball’s Loserville, a.k.a. Chicago. (Since 1917, the Cubs and White Sox have combined for one World Series championship: the White Sox, in 2005). But till then, the Pirates are going to need to beat up on the Reds and the Brewers, the division’s inferior teams. On opening day, even those teams think that if their rookies pan out and everyone stays healthy they might surprise people. Silly Reds and Brewers, we know how you feel. Both of those teams have rosters similar to those of Pirates past.
Opening day means fresh chalk lines and the Bucco Blast counter reset to zero. New stupid promos by the players have been made for the big screen, and fresh hot dogs loaded into the hot-dog gun. It’s a day of unbridled optimism, hope and positive energy. The playoff loss of last year and the battered Gatorade cooler are all forgotten. Opening day is only a couple days away, but I wish it was tomorrow.