CINCINNATI -– Here’s one sad part of progress: Baseball’s Opening Day should be in Cincinnati. Every year. The Reds should have the stage to themselves on the first day of the baseball season.
Now, I don’t say this because Cincinnati has some claim to the first professional baseball team -- that is why the first pitch was thrown in Cincinnati for more than 100 years. I never thought that was a particularly good reason, to be honest.
No, I say Opening Day should always be in Cincinnati because Opening Day MATTERS in Cincinnati in ways it doesn’t matter anywhere else. People care desperately about Opening Day here. It is a holiday even when the team is lousy, and even when the weather is dreadful.
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Every year, there’s an Opening Day parade. Every year, kids are let out of school. Every year, everybody wears red, and people skip work, and they give out these little baseball-shaped sugar cookies at Skyline Chili, which is sort of the official restaurant of Cincinnati.
People say all the time that baseball is too stuck in the past, and in many ways it is. There are a lot of things that SHOULD be changed. But taking away Opening Day from Cincinnati … that was just wrong. Baseball is still a game of history; some traditions should be kept.
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Monday, it turns out, was a gorgeous day in Cincinnati, and even though the Dodgers had already played, like, half their season, and 12 other teams beat the Reds to first pitch, this was still Opening Day.
People said “Happy Opening Day” to me at the airport, the parade tromped through town, fans began gathering around the park hours before the start. Mr. Redlegs, the ancient Reds mascot with the great handlebar mustache, hopped around. Joe Morgan wore red, Pete Rose wore blue, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin co-threw out the first pitch, and a young singer named Maggie Chapman did something that I cannot remember hearing at a big sporting event: She sang a perfect national anthem without altering a single note to show off her voice.
Then it was game time, Reds and Cardinals. The Cardinals might be the best team in the National League -– the Cardinals, it seems, ALWAYS might be the best team in the National League. Meanwhile, Reds fans’ hopes this season seem to revolve around two people: Their first-year manager Bryan Price and their blazing fast center fielder, Billy Hamilton.
The Price equation is an easy one: He’s not Dusty Baker. The Reds won 90 or more games three of the last four seasons, which is pretty good, but it’s fair to say that by the end of the run, just about everybody in Cincinnati was sick of Dusty Baker. This is not Baker’s fault. He’s very likable. He’s a good person. He led the Reds to their best records in more than a decade.
But Dusty is … well … let’s use the word “conspicuous.” Marty Schottenheimer was like that in the NFL, too. They manage and coach one way, and one way only. The chances they will change: nil. The chances they will be unpredictable: nil. The chances they will say something that surprises you: nil. That sort of consistency can be a good thing if the team wins championships -– then you have Bill Belichick –- but in the cases of Baker and Schottenheimer, they kept falling short. That leads to people wanting a change. Any change.
So Bryan Price, a longtime successful pitching coach, made his major league debut as a manager Monday. He didn’t seem to get any obvious opportunities to differentiate himself from Dusty Baker’s style; the one discernible strategy choice he did make was, with runners on first and third and nobody out in the eighth inning, he presumably directed Brandon Phillips to run on contact from third. This led to Phillips being caught in a rundown and tagged out, and the Reds blew by far their best scoring chance. There’s not much you can take from that.
Nor is there much to take from Billy Hamilton’s somewhat disastrous day. It has been many years since a player like Hamilton has emerged; you might have to go back 30 or so years to a human flash Cardinals outfielder named Vince Coleman. Hamilton is spectacularly fast. He’s not the normal kind of fast you see in a prospect –- he is one of the fastest men to ever play Major League Baseball.
This speed makes him about as exciting as any young player in the game. He stole 155 bases in the minor leagues two years ago. Last year, in just 13 big league games, he stole 13 bases – the first two against that catching terminator Yadier Molina. The guy is so fast that third basemen have to play way in even when Hamilton is facing two strikes and almost certainly won’t bunt. If he somehow chops the ball or squibs it or slashes it or clunks it, he is all but impossible to throw out.
Ah, but there’s the issue: Even with his great speed, he has to make contact with the baseball (or draw walks) to be effective. And this is an issue. Last year, in Triple-A Louisville, he hit just .258 –- mainly because he struck out 102 times in 123 games. He only walked 38 times so that didn’t help either. The hope in Cincinnati is that he was working on things in Louisville and wasn’t concerned with results. They are reassured because he hit brilliantly in his 13-game trial last September, and he hit .327 in spring training. People in Cincinnati would like to believe that’s a better reflection of his talents.
Hamilton wanted very much to make a good impression in his first Cincinnati Opening Day. In truth, he probably wanted it too much. He would admit that he did not sleep much Sunday night. When he was introduced to the crowd, the cheers were overwhelming, and that no doubt added to his stress level.
First time up, against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, Hamilton looked at strike three. His second time up, he struck out swinging. He went down swinging his third time up. And, yeah, he struck out swinging his fourth time up. He became just the ninth non-pitcher to come up four times and strike out four times on Opening Day. But, he might be happy to know, he was not the first ultra-hyped rookie to do so on his first Opening Day. On Opening Day 2006, Prince Fielder whiffed four times. So that’s not bad company.
“It’s over with,” Hamilton said after the game and, “It’s baseball; it happens like that sometimes.” It’s the right attitude. Hey, he was facing Wainwright, who was more or less dominating everybody, not just Hamilton.
“I didn’t see any issues with Billy –- I see him going against Adam Wainwright, who’s pretty good,” Bryan Price said. To be honest, Dusty Baker might have said that too.
The Cardinals won the game, 1-0, by the way, and in St. Louis they’re undoubtedly dreaming about a 162-0 season because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you win on Opening Day. And in Cincinnati? On the ride back, I listened to some talk radio and heard a host say, “Look it’s just one game. We all know that. But they really looked lethargic. Yes it’s a long season but … does it mean anything? Give me a call at ….”
In other words, in Cincinnati, Opening Day was over.