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Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

Opening day

Green grass. New faces. Fresh hopes.

April 2, 2006

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For some, it's about bubble gum and uniforms. For others, it's about hopes and dreams. Today is Opening Day for the 2006 major league baseball season. Seven people with connections to both baseball and Lawrence - a little-leaguer, a minor-leaguer, a commentator, two baseball writers, a fan and a professor - reflect on what the annual occasion means to them.

Jim Carothers

Carothers is a Kansas University English professor who teaches an occasional course on baseball literature.

Stan Musial always said that his biggest thrill was putting on a uniform on Opening Day.

It's the beginning of the school year: a fresh start, new hope, old friends and new faces. It's going back to a familiar camp, an escape to the green world where refreshment and renewal are both certain and surprising.

 Jim Carothers, a Kansas University English professor, surrounds himself with baseball literature and memorabilia in his campus office, including a baseball from Fenway Park and a photo of New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth.

Jim Carothers, a Kansas University English professor, surrounds himself with baseball literature and memorabilia in his campus office, including a baseball from Fenway Park and a photo of New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth.

Baseball's Opening Day gives us an excuse to dream. Last year's failures are forgettable. This year's successes are potential. Anybody can win it all, even the Cubs, who haven't won since Tinker, Evers and Chance were players instead of a poem.

Maybe someone will hit three triples in an inning, or steal second with the bases loaded. Even the cynics can be seduced by hope. Maybe all the steroid users will drift away to the shadows of oblivion and shame. Maybe the greedy and contemptuous owners and players and agents will get over themselves. Maybe the writers and announcers and Talking Heads will focus their attention (and ours) on the stunning beauty of this powerful and exquisite game.

Deep down, we know better. Opening Day dreams, like third marriages, represent the triumph of hope over experience. Locally, about the best we can ask for is that the Royals will not be obviously out of it by Mother's Day.

Opening day used to be the central ritual in a much larger set of baseball renewals: the first radio broadcast of a spring training game, the arrival of the first baseball cards at the candy stores, the first game of catch on the first warm day, the first sight of a boy riding his bicycle around the neighborhood with his bat across the handlebars, the first sound of a hard ball thwacking against a wooden bat.

Baseball then was the whole story. Now it's just part of one channel, part of the time. A lot of people who go to Opening Day games don't go to another game all year.

Still, Opening Day reminds us that baseball gives us something to care about, positively and passionately. Take us, then, once again, out to the ballgame.

Joseph Mikesic

10-year-old Mikesic is a third baseman and outfielder for the Ruff Riders of the Douglas County Amateur Baseball Assn.

Finally, baseball season is here. What's not to like about the start of baseball season? There are many things I love about baseball, and these are just a few:

Winter is over, and spring has sprung. It's time to reunite with my teammates, who I haven't seen since the end of last season. Unfortunately, our last game was a loss to the rival Bulls. But since that game, everyone has gotten just a little better. Plus, right now everyone is undefeated and is dreaming of grand slams and no-hitters.

Joseph Mikesic, 11, makes a throw to first base from his second-base position during a practice with his baseball team at the YSI fields

Joseph Mikesic, 11, makes a throw to first base from his second-base position during a practice with his baseball team at the YSI fields

Is there anything better than the season's first whiff of leather from your glove? Every ballplayer believes the feel of fresh grip tape on your old bat (or that new big barrel bat you got for Christmas) will mean more line drives and big hits. And I can't get rid of the thought of stealing home in my trusty old cleats.

I just love blowing bubbles with a fresh wad of Big League Chew, just like the big leaguers. When I was 8, I blew such a big bubble, it popped out onto the dirt infield. It was a fresh wad of Chew, dude! So I picked it up and popped it back in my mouth. Crunchy, but still tasty! The guys thought it was pretty cool, but the moms weren't so sure.

Everyone feels a few butterflies in the tummy when they step up to the plate for that first at-bat of the season. Hopefully, those extra batting practice sessions with the Jayhawks this winter will help me out.

Having friends and family there to watch you play also helps because they don't care whether you strike out or get the game-winning hit. Either way, my mom will still ask if maybe I could have gotten my uniform just a little bit dirtier. Good thing I've got a brand new pair of baseball pants.

Bill James

James, of Lawrence, is a baseball author and senior baseball operations adviser to the Boston Red Sox.

Opening Day is in a sense like Opening Night, and in another sense the opposite of Opening Night.

Bill James, of Lawrence, a baseball author and senior baseball operations adviser to the Boston Red Sox, sometimes forgets to appreciate the excitement of Opening Day.

Bill James, of Lawrence, a baseball author and senior baseball operations adviser to the Boston Red Sox, sometimes forgets to appreciate the excitement of Opening Day.

Opening Night in the theater is much anticipated and much dreaded. It's the time you have to put it on the line and let people decide whether you're good or not.

Opening Day is a little like that, except that the reviews aren't overnight. First game of the year, nobody cares whether you're good or not; it's like running over the first flower of spring with a wheelbarrow because its petals are too small. Nobody cares whether it's a good flower or a lousy flower; we're just happy to have spring.

I have a dream, once or twice every spring, usually the end of April, in which I wake up one morning and it's late season, and somehow I have missed the season. A sense of despair washes over me. Mike Sweeney has hit 42 home runs, and somehow I have missed it. I forgot to watch the box scores. I forgot to treasure the moments.

It's the march of time; time hangs in the air, drags by at the pace of creeping rust from October until now, and then suddenly the race is on, the days are flying at such a pace we can hardly focus. What did I miss?

And then, soon enough, the reviews are in, not suddenly like the theater, but suddenly like the loss of youth, predictable but still unexpected. We're lousy again, or we're not so lousy. There is hope for next year. We will celebrate spring again; I know we will. There will be crocuses soon enough, dandelions soon after. Only moles and gophers enjoy the winter.

Kevin Hooper

Hooper, a 1995 Lawrence High School graduate, is second baseman for the minor league Toledo Mud Hens.

It's about that time of the year again - one of the best days of my year, year in and year out.

Opening Day for myself will be spent in Toledo, Ohio, on April 6, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, AAA affiliate for the Detroit Tigers. This will be my fifth opening day at the AAA level.

Toledo Mud Hens second baseman Kevin Hooper has relished Opening Day since he was a little boy.

Toledo Mud Hens second baseman Kevin Hooper has relished Opening Day since he was a little boy.

This might be one of the more special opening days of my career because we will receive our championship rings for winning the Governors' Cup title last year in the International League. What a year it was for me last year, spending opening day in Toledo, my daughter Lucy being born June 27, getting called to the big leagues exactly a week later and then winning the championship in Toledo.

My childhood dream of being a major league baseball player came true last July, and all the ground balls, hitting in the cage and working out paid off for that day I got to put on the major league uniform.

I was in Lakeland, Fla., beginning Feb. 18, when I reported to major league camp, and just headed north to Toledo on Saturday after finishing my spring in minor league camp. My teammates and I are all ready for camp to be over, and this last week of spring training tends to drag a little because of the excitement for Opening Day to come.

If you were to ask any of my family members, my love for the game of baseball started right when I was born. I couldn't wait for Opening Day because I would get to watch my favorite game on the television pretty much every day and try to learn as much about the game as possible.

There have been many ups and downs, and so many people always doubted me when I was younger because of my size. Because of my work ethic, desire, respect for the game and my heart, I overcame all the obstacles and achieved my dream of playing major league baseball. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and chased it down.

Hopefully, I will be able to play in the major leagues again soon, but if not, it's been a great journey. I never know when my last Opening Day will be as a player, but I know it will always be a special day for me as long as I live, whether I'm playing, coaching or just watching.

Cheryl Wonnell

Cheryl Wonnell is a Lawrence resident and Kansas University baseball fan.

It's KU baseball season, and I am so ready. Growing up I was not athletic at all. I remember Daddy trying to teach me to catch a baseball. It was not a pretty sight since it's hard to catch a ball with your eyes closed!


Cheryl Wonnell claps and gives encouragement while Jayhawk batter Andy Scholl steps up to the plate in this 2005 file photo.

Cheryl Wonnell claps and gives encouragement while Jayhawk batter Andy Scholl steps up to the plate in this 2005 file photo.

My mother is still amazed what a sports fan I have become. I am grateful to own my own business so I can attend most of the games.

Although I love KU basketball and football, baseball is the most special to me. Prior to 1992, I hadn't ever been to a KU baseball game. A player at the time, Josh Igou, invited me to come. After one game, I was hooked.

What I love most is getting to know the players. I have kinda become the unofficial "Baseball Mom" since 1993, so I consider all the players "my kids." They are the most polite young men, and they really appreciate the fans. They always thank me for coming to the games. Win or lose, I stay after the games and give them their hug. I treasure the lasting friendships with past players and their families.

I visited with several of the players after they had been to Clemson and experienced playing before 5,000-plus fans. They said if was awesome. On Wednesday, we played Wichita State and had more than 2,300 in attendance, which is the way I would like to see every game.

With a first-class ball field, it's a great place to bring the family for a reasonable price. It's fun to hear the kids cheer, "Go Maty" (Matt Baty) or "De-fense." The kids can hang around after the game and meet the players and get autographs. What's not to love about it? Hoglund Ballpark is wonderful, and you can't beat the feeling of being in the stands cheering on the Jayhawks.

Bob Davis

Bob Davis is a Lawrence resident and play-by-play announcer for the Kansas City Royals Sports Television Network.

Opening Day is an exciting, fresh start to the baseball season. It means spring has sprung and all the baseball teams are playing. Baseball is back for another year. I love baseball, and this is the start of another long, fun season.

Everybody has high hopes when the season begins. Everybody starts 0-0 and is optimistic. While you have to be realistic, and maybe I'm more so now than when I was younger, it's still fun and there are so many things to follow and look forward to throughout the season, like the individual players and how they will develop.

Not much has changed since I was younger because my team then, the Kansas City A's, were not winning consistently either. Opening Day when I was a youngster was a thrilling event. I remember the first Opening Day when the A's came to Kansas City and they played the Detroit Tigers and won the ballgame. Everyone was ecstatic. From that point on, I became an A's fan.

The Royals' first Opening Day when they came into existence was an extra-inning victory over the Minnesota Twins and was such an uplifting, exhilarating moment for the whole area.

Baseball has become an ingrained part of our culture. While we have a lot of excitement now in a variety of sports, there is that historic and magical aura about baseball and its grand seasonal beginning in this country. It goes back nearly 150 years to the time of the Civil War and has since become part of our heritage and our daily lives.

Kansas City and the surrounding area is a great example of why Opening Day is so special. The day of the Royals' first home game is called Kansas City Day, and the city is abuzz and gets behind it. The stadium is packed with blue, and it's without a doubt one of the most exceptional days on the entire K.C. calendar, not just the sports calendar.

Here's to another fantastic Opening Day and a fresh baseball season. See you at the ballpark, or on the Royals Sports Television Network, Channel 6 in Lawrence.

John Sickels

John Sickels, Lawrence, writes books on baseball prospects and edits the "John Sickels Baseball Newsletter."

Trying to describe why I like baseball is like trying to describe why I like a beautiful sunset, or why I like a song, or why I love my wife. It's not something that can really be pinned down with words, or really expressed well except to someone who has had a similar experience.

Baseball is, first of all, a game, of course. But it operates on many different levels. There's the game as it exists on the field: the direct simple physical joy generated by pitching or throwing or hitting or fielding or running. The rhythms of the game are unique. The game itself has an unusual dynamic between individual and team performance, one that I don't think is really duplicated in other sports.

There is the game as observed by those who aren't playing. Seeing the game in the stands can be a social experience with friends, a family outing. If you're alone, scoring a contest or simply watching the players on TV can be a solitary concentration of emotion and thought.

Then there is the game as it exists in the record books: Baseball, its players and their statistics are embedded into our culture, even our language, in a way that numbers from other games are not. Much good literature (and much bad) has been written about the game. The sport has had its ups and downs in popularity, but I expect it will endure as long as America does.

On a purely selfish level, I love baseball because I've been able to make my living studying baseball players, prospects in particular. Of course, I wouldn't be analyzing players if I hadn't already loved the game, so it's a chicken-egg thing, I suppose. For all of these reasons, Opening Day is as big a holiday in my home as Christmas or July 4th.

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