John McGrath: When opening day returns to its roots, I’ll declare a holiday

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 26, 2014 

Should Major League Baseball’s opening day be recognized as a national holiday?

The idea has been submitted by Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who is teaming up with Bud — the Anheuser Busch beer brand, not commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig — to collect 100,000 names on a petition. If enough supporters sign on within 30 days, Smith will deliver the signatures to the White House, where the Obama administration must consider it under the We the People petitioning program.

“Coming from St. Louis, of course, being such a baseball town, it’s sort of an unofficial holiday, opening day, so they thought it would be a good idea for Mr. Smith to just take a trip to Washington,” the Cardinals legend told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I don’t know what the odds of success are … with the Budweiser machine behind it, I’m sure we’ll get the 100,000 signatures.”

I don’t know what the odds of success are either, although I suspect the chance of national-holiday status for opening day is slimmer than a new edition of postage stamps honoring Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

But I understand the sentiment: Opening day long has been a chance for students to skip school — and office workers to sneak out early — so they can regale in the fanfare of a first pitch thrown in Tokyo at 3 a.m.

Sorry, that’s an exaggeration — and like any exaggeration, it’s inaccurate. The first pitch of the 2014 season, scheduled to begin with a game between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks on March 22, will be thrown in Sydney, where TV viewers on the West Coast can see it at 1 a.m.

The domestic version of the 2014 opener is slated for March 30, when the Dodgers travel to San Diego for a Sunday game at 5 p.m.

Sunday at 5? What schools are open on Sunday at 5? Ditching class for opening day has become as passé as watching a driver’s education film on one of those 16mm projectors that would get stuck and render the narrator’s suddenly stuttering voice into something that sounded like the Loch Ness Monster.

Full disclosure: I was not a model student, merely a durable one. Among the few days of high school I missed was for the 1971 season opener between the Cardinals and Cubs at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It turned out to be a classic matinee duel between Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins, two Hall of Famers who took the mound as if there were an early-evening plane to catch and they had remembered their luggage was jammed into the trunk of a car parked in front of a fire hydrant across the street from the police station.

The pitchers worked fast, the hitters were cold — everybody was cold — and the game, decided by Billy Williams’ solo homer off Gibson, lasted two minutes short of two hours. It would’ve been played quicker than that, except Williams didn’t connect until the 10th inning.

I got back to the house an hour before dinner, when my parents reminded me I had than enough time to catch up on the algebra and science I’d disregarded during the day.

Prevailing lesson learned from the 1971 opener: When ditching school for a baseball game, hope that Bob Gibson isn’t facing Ferguson Jenkins on a chilly afternoon.

The opening day Ozzie Smith envisions as a national holiday apparently is March 31, the Monday following the Sunday domestic opener, eight days after the official opener in Australia. March 31 is packed with 13 games, beginning with the Cubs at Pittsburgh (10:05 a.m. in the West) and ending, inevitably, with the Mariners at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (7:05 p.m. in the West).

But what sort of opening day doesn’t include the New York Yankees? Love ’em or loathe ’em, the Yankees are the most accomplished, most recognized baseball franchise on the planet. The Yanks open Tuesday, April 1, in Houston.

I understand Major League Baseball’s determination to expand its market to audiences in Asia and Australia. I understand, too, baseball’s commitment to ESPN, a trusted media partner that deserves first-night broadcast rights on March 30.

But as baseball continues to splinter its opening day schedule into bits and pieces — between ceremonial first pitches thrown in Sydney, then San Diego, then Pittsburgh — it’s difficult to determine the precise definition of “opening day.”

I hope Ozzie Smith brings a petition of 100,000 signatures to the White House, if for no other reason than it’ll prove there are 100,000 American sports fans with interests beyond the ubiquitous NFL, where the off season is busier than the actual season.

But my real hope is for opening day to return to its roots: afternoon games, on the first Monday in April, at Cincinnati and at Washington (where the president is on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch). On Tuesday, every other team is in action.

So declare, say, the first Tuesday in April a national holiday?

Nah, that’s too complicated, too charged with hot-blooded opinions on what merits these rituals. (Please, don’t get me started on the sham of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln requiring to share February birthdays generically termed “Presidents Day,” while Christopher Columbus, the Western Hemisphere’s original invading village plunderer, is recognized with his own holiday in October.)

Better to give the first Tuesday in April a distinction appealing to class-ditching schoolkids: Call it a national “holler day,” and trust they’ll be home from the ballpark with enough time to catch up on the algebra and science they missed during a four-hour game interrupted by 14 pitching changes.

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