“Baseball breaks your heart; it is designed to break your heart.
The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins;
It blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and the evenings;
And then, as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.”
-Bart Giamatti (Baseball Commissioner, 1989)
I can still recall the wonder and excitement that would accompany Opening Day in my youth. From somewhere around the age of seven (when the sport first fully grabbed hold of me), I realized the significance of the start of a new baseball season. I suppose it represented what New Year’s Day represents for many adults, although even that comparison doesn’t really capture the essence of the feeling.
On Opening Day all things are possible for your team. It matters not that the roster is replete with second-rate players who will never achieve personal greatness or that every single prognosticator has picked your team for last place. On Opening Day, your team is undefeated, the players’ uniforms are unsullied, and everyone is batting a thousand (actually not true in mathematical terms, but you get my point).
And on Opening Day, all your dreams can be realized; your team can win the World Series, and you can find fulfillment, be that measured by success in little league or, as I got older, getting a date with the cute girl in Social Studies class. Of course, that little league success never happened, and that cute girl never took an interest in me. That’s the reality that the innocence of Opening Day is unable (or unwilling) to see.
The Cubbies are all aglow with enthusiasm this spring. They have stockpiled a bunch of young stars-to-be, and they made a couple of big moves in the off-season, signing ace pitcher Jon Lester to a big contract, and stealing the highly touted manager, Joe Maddon, from Tampa Bay. Some fans have even been thinking this might be the year to erase the curse.
The Cubs had the spotlight on Sunday night, opening the season with a nationally-televised (ESPN) game against the rival St. Louis Cardinals (who also have high hopes for their season, as do all the other 28 teams). They had Lester on the mound, ready to lead his team to a win, and Maddon in the dugout, ready to make all the perfect strategic moves as the game progressed. The grass was green; the fans were excited; everything was as it needed to be.
The thing about being young and Opening Day is that their innocence is precious in both their purity and their naïveté. Only in our youth can the true wonder of Opening Day (with its promise not only of a successful season for your team but of the never-ending summer vacation that is soon to start) be held so dear, without even knowing how quickly it will pass or understanding how bitter the defeats to come will seem.
The baseball season takes its toll, just as life does: key players are injured and miss critical games; balls bounce the wrong way too often and too many close games are lost; players go through slumps that never seem to end; trades that were supposed to improve the team have exactly the opposite result. By summer’s end, the team is well out of any hopes of a pennant (or a playoff run in today’s format), and thoughts turn to football or basketball or hockey or anything but watching the team lose yet another game.
But none of that is envisioned when we’re young on Opening Day. Only the perfection of the team, the game, life.
The loss of innocence that the flow of a baseball season represents is matched by the loss of innocence that comes with the maturity that the passing years bring in life. It can be cruel, as in the sudden death of a parent or a spouse or (that most monstrous of heartbreaks) a child. Or it can be subtle, as in the realization that I’m not going to become a medical doctor or a U.S. Senator or a Pulitzer Prize winning author.
The best of us manage to find ways to maintain an inner sense of fulfillment with the course our lives take. For me that has been finding joy in my family, my career, my hobbies, and my interests. Attitude is everything; that seems to be the core of all the messages from the many religions and from the ubiquitous spiritual advisors. And I cannot deny their wisdom, for I have seen it make a difference in my life on many occasions (most dramatically in my battle with cancer).
But, ah, youth! How wondrous it is. And how special it is to feel the joy of youth that Opening Day provides. I cherish the memory, even as I relive it every year.
But, yes, I am now old enough and wise enough to cover my bets. I no longer anticipate perfection or even expect my team to make it to the World Series (and since it’s been 26 years since the Dodgers were last there, I guess I’ve had reality hit me pretty hard on that dream). Instead, I find joy in the moment and let myself suffer the indignities of those bumps in the road with what I hope is a fair amount of grace.
So a magnificent orchestral performance, or a finely acted theatrical play, or a great movie, or a wondrous novel, or a happy gathering of friends, or a call from one of my sons, or a quiet evening with my still beautiful wife, fills me with the joy and wonder that comes close to that feeling I remember from my youth as the players took the field on Opening Day.
No, it isn’t the same. It isn’t even close, really. But it suffices in the end to make life still seem a treasure and to make my life still seem incredibly blessed.
Oh, and, yes, as you may have heard, the Cubbies lost to St. Louis, 3 to 0.