The great actor Joe Mantegna tells a beautiful story about baseball and nostalgia. He says that when he was a kid, he would go to Wrigley Field with his father all the time. And every now and again, his father would start talking about the days long before the walls were covered with ivy.
Mantegna's father would say that when he was very young, there was no wall at all - there were just people standing in the outfield. And then, not long after, there was a rickety wall made of wood. He remembered that wall well. There were cracks between the planks and little holes in the wood, and kids could stand back there and look through, catch slivers of the game.
Joe would look up at his father, see the wonder in his face, hear the passion in his voice. And he would think: "Dad, who gives a s---? Let's go get a hot dog."
One of the harder parts of getting older is letting go. Yes, of course, every single thing about baseball's "opening night" Sunday felt wrong to me. First of all, there shouldn't even be an opening night in baseball. Opening nights are for Broadway. Baseball: It's Opening Day, both words capitalized.
Third, the first baseball game DEFINITELY shouldn't be Texas at Houston. I mean no offense to those two fine baseball cities, but that's an old Southwest Conference game, not the first game of the baseball season.
Fourth, it . OK, see, this is what happens. I'm a half-step away from complaining that nobody can bunt anymore, that the music's too loud and that you used to be able to get a cup of coffee for a quarter. They move teams from one league to the other, play interleague games throughout the season, add a second wildcard, subtract doubleheaders, carry 13 pitchers in the bullpen . none of it feels right.
None of it feels right, I know, because it doesn't feel right that I'm not 8 anymore.
Yes, I was 8 for the first Opening Day I clearly remember. It was 1975. I was living in Cleveland, and the Indians had just hired Frank Robinson to be the first African-American manager in baseball history. I was only vaguely aware of the world then, but I understood that it was a big deal, and I understood that Frank Robinson was a star baseball player.
There was, in memory, a lot of hype leading up to that first game . it seemed like everybody was talking about it. Hey, the Indians needed something to hype. They had not been to the postseason in two decades, and they had been lousy pretty much every year since I had been born. Their lousiness was becoming clich. It was around the time that I went on a boat ride at Cedar Point, an amusement park not too far away from Cleveland, and the boat was supposedly attacked by clich movie western Indians.
"Don't worry folks," the boat guide said merrily as they fired cap guns at us. "Those thar are Cleveland Indians, and everyone knows they can't hit anything."
So, the Frank Robinson breakthrough as the first black manager was a big deal for Cleveland. I didn't know the specifics, of course. I didn't know then that Robinson was a tough character, forceful, proud, determined. He had won the Triple Crown in 1966, the very year after Cincinnati had considered him washed up. He remains the only player to win the MVP in both leagues. His batting stance reflected the fury of his personality. He stood almost on top of the plate. He stood so close to the plate, he DARED pitchers to hit him. They did hit him - seven times in his career, he led the league in getting hit by pitches. He never backed off, though.
Before the game in 1975, there was a nice celebration. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, was there - Jackie had died in 1972, and in his last public appearance, at the World Series, he had said that his one wish was to see a black man manage a big league team. This completed the circle. She said that her wish was that Jackie could have been there. "I'm sure in many ways," she added, "he is."
Frank Robinson wasn't just the manager that day, though. He was also the Indians' designated hitter. He batted himself second. He came up in the bottom of the first inning to face the Yankees' Doc Medich. Robinson was almost 40 years old. He had been a .300 hitter the first 16 years of his career, but the previous three seasons he hit .255. Though he raged against the end, he knew it was close. Medich started him off with a curveball that the umpire said caught the corner for a strike. Robinson apparently grunted. He did not like the call.
The next pitch was a fastball, and another called strike. Robinson would say he was in a bit of a daze. There was so much emotion in the air, so much history being made. It was too big a moment. And then Doc Medich made a mistake. He dropped down on his next pitch, threw a wicked sidearm curveball, and Robinson fouled it back.
And now Frank Robinson was very, very, very angry. Medich, it seemed to Robinson, had wanted to strike him out on three pitches. He had wanted to make Robinson look bad. He had dropped down to throw a curveball 0-2? On his first day as a big league manager? With Rachel Robinson in the stands? With more than 55,000 people in the stands? On OPENING DAY?
Robinson wasn't in a fog anymore. The body ages, but the mind stays young and angry. Maybe he inched a little closer to the plate. Maybe he gripped the bat with a little more purpose. After taking two balls, he watched Medich's next delivery and guessed fastball. Well, he didn't exactly guess - at some point in his career, he started to just know. It was a fastball. He turned on it. And he hit it out.
"Was It Fiction .?" was the headline the next morning in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Robinson ran around the bases the same way he ran the 585 times he hit a home run. Head down. Serious look. When he got to home plate, the reporters would say, he tipped his cap. And he disappeared into the dugout.
I was not there. I read about it in the paper. Well, in memory, my father read it to me. It's corny and mawkish and probably irrational to talk about how anything is possible on Opening Day. But I have to admit, I've felt that way ever since I was 8 years old. The other sports have their special features, but there's something different about Opening Day. Winter breaks. The days get longer. The grass greens, the neighbors barbecue, Vin Scully tells us one more time that the deuces are wild - two balls, two strikes, two outs, two men on.
And, no, when you cut through the nonsense, it doesn't matter that the first game is at night or that the Astros are in the American League now or that weird matchups like Reds-Angels will pepper the schedule for six months. So what? Baseball's back.
Which leads to the end of the Joe Mantegna story. When he got older, he would take his kids to Wrigley Field. And when they got there, he found that he would start reminiscing. He would tell them that there used to be no lights in the ballpark. Every game was a day game. Time would just stand still in that wonderful old park, where Billy Williams unleashed his sweet swing and Don Kessinger ranged deep into the hole for a play and Moe Drabowsky fired fastballs.
Then, Mantegna would remember and look down at his children. And they would be looking up at him, and he recognized that look. They were thinking, "Who gives a s---, Dad? Let's go get a hot dog."