Monday, March 31, 1997
In baseball, our city will
always be 1st

The Cincinnati Enquirer

On Opening Day, Cincinnati loads the bases with pride, tradition and reverence.

Come Tuesday, baseball is God. At least for one day and one game, the Reds are our religion. And the stadium, whether you call it Riverfront or Cinergy Field, is our place of worship.

For some, the conversion ends with the last out. For others, it lasts a lifetime.

Whether you are a one-game believer or a fan for all seasons, Tuesday belongs to Cincinnati.

Other cities have the first game of the season. We have Opening Day.

We are proud of the day, what it represents and where we stand in the history of this game of faith between the foul lines.

Cincinnati is the home of major-league baseball. It's where the big leagues began.

The Reds were the first professional team. Their history is our legacy. We grow up hearing it at the supper table. It's so close at hand you almost feel like asking Marty and Joe for a second helping as they deliver the play-by-play on the kitchen radio. You soak it up and it sinks in, like gravy on a piece of good rye bread.

In baseball, many things can and do change. Dynasties like the Big Red Machine can be dismantled. Your favorite player can be traded. But we will forever be the birthplace of professional baseball.

First among firsts

In a city proud of its firsts, we are most proud of this one on Opening Day: Only one town can say it's America's first big-league city. And this is the place.

This pride fits Cincinnati's big-city, small-town mentality. We are a big-league city. But we are small-town enough to practically shut down the place for a game. The game. Opening Day.

This day unites the city - the game's on radios all over town - and it unlocks the gateway to summer. It reminds you of waking up on the first morning after school's out for the year. You race outside, letting the screen door slam, to greet a world of green grass and sun-warmed earth.

On Opening Day, you can goof off. Grown-ups can take their kids out to a lunch that lasts nine innings.

You can wear red, too. And see a parade. It's like the circus has come to town. Only better.

The parade ends where the game begins. Inside the stadium, the lines are drawn between fair and foul, good and evil. Seats in tiddlywinks colors of blue, green, yellow and red survey a green plastic carpet and five patches of dirt - three bases, the pitcher's mound and home plate.

This year they will see a game that was, once again, not an instant sellout. The hottest ticket in town has cooled off. The church of baseball is troubled, the flock uncertain.

We know why. For the last eight seasons, it's been a hard game to love. Pete Rose was banned from baseball. Marge Schott misbehaved. The players became surly millionaires, went on strike, killed a season and canceled a World Series. Marge was suspended. Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire.

Baseball's troubles have tarnished what I used to think was the untarnishable, the joy of Opening Day.

Fans - if they still have the will to come to the ballpark - bring with them a sense of uncertainty. They don't know what they're going to see, teams playing baseball or fools playing games.

This leaves me sad. I wish people could look beyond the bitterness. And realize what they're missing.

True dreamers

To believe in Opening Day is to see it as a rite of passage, a change of seasons.

Spring may still be in its early stages. But, when they throw out the first pitch, the seasons change.

Spring changes into the baseball season, the season of summer with its promise of endless freedoms and carefree days.

For nine innings, we are relieved of life's burdens. On this day, there's no room for what went wrong at the office. Postpone the debate over where the Reds' new stadium should go. Opening Day must be reserved as a day of remembrance and hope.

Old men remember playing the game of their lost youth. They smell the aroma of cowhide and dirt. They hear the hearty cheers. And are made young again.

Young kids slap their gloves and dream. Maybe someday they'll step to the plate. The crowd will hush. Spirits will soar.

And the ump will yell:

Play ball.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.