March 27, 2007

The Reds Were First, or Why We Should Bring Opening Day Back to Cincinnati

Major League Baseball opens the 2007 championship season on Sunday night, April 1 when the New York Mets visit Busch Stadium in St Louis to play the Cardinals. The game will begin at 5:05 pm EDST and feature the reigning winners of the World Series in the Cardinals, and the Mets, who many consider one of the top teams in the National League.

The Sunday night timing is a creation of MLB’s relationship with ESPN. It is an attractive entertainment product. The game will be the only contest that day for Major League Baseball so it will attract the baseball world’s spotlight. More so, the game is placed the day after the NCAA’s Final Four basketball semi-final double-header on Saturday night, March 31, and the day prior to the championship game on Monday, April 2. The Mets and Cardinals will have the attention of the sports world (with perhaps the exception of two schools’ college basketball fans).

The isolation of the season opening game mirrors the move of the National Football League in recent years to play a single game on the Thursday evening prior to the Week 1 Sunday matches. Last fall, the New England Patriots met the Pittsburgh Steelers pitting the dynastic Patriots against the reigning Super Bowl champions.

2007 is the third consecutive year that MLB has opened on a Sunday night. In 2005, the Red Sox played the Yankees in the Bronx. Last year, Cleveland played the White Sox in the rain on the south-side of Chicago. The previous season’s World Series champion has the opportunity to bask in the national media attention for the night and pit itself against a strong opponent.

For all of its benefits, this move to Sunday night does come at a cost.

For all the benefits of media attention, advertisement revenue, and the spotlight for the two clubs, we disempower the strength of Opening Day and lose another connection to the long held baseball practice of showing the Cincinnati Reds the honor of playing the season’s very first game.

Opening Day is unique in the four American professional sports leagues. It coincides with the beginning of spring. Spring is renewal and it is new beginnings. In two weeks is the Christian holy day of Easter and next week is the Jewish festival of the Passover. Both speak messages of renewal and rebirth, and while rooted in their unique cosmologies and theologies, connect with and to the physical season in which we all participate.

American football is the late summer and fall. Hockey is a winter sport, the NHL playoffs not withstanding. Basketball is a winter sport, invented in western Massachusetts during the winter, despite its definition by the International Olympic Committee as a summer event. Only baseball returns to us in the spring and matches its season opener to the season and beginning of April.

In no city does this return enjoy greater municipal recognition than in Cincinnati.

On Monday, April 2, Cincinnati will host the 88th edition of the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. While its origins are humble, in a handful of local merchants closing up shop and walking together to the ballpark for the opener, it now has full city support and organization. This year, former Reds All-Star outfielder Eric Davis will be the grand-marshal of the parade.

Chicago has the St Patrick’s Day parade. Philadelphia has the January 1 Mummers’ Parade. New York does the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Pasadena has the Rose Bowl Parade. Each civic celebration speaks of the city’s character and speaks about our own connections to the event and the city. (Please do not speculate on how the Mummers’ Parade speaks of Philadelphia).

The Reds are the only team in the American or National Leagues that opens every season at home (barring labor strife work-stoppages). For many years, the very first game of the season was scheduled for Cincinnati.

We had this tradition to celebrate and honor the Cincinnati Reds as the first professional team in baseball history. The Reds’ first season was in 1869, seven years prior to the organization of the National League itself. The Reds had this crazy innovative idea to pay players to play the sport, and then charge admission to generate revenue. The Reds pioneered the business model.

When MLB celebrated its 100th-year anniversary in 1969, and 125th-year anniversary in 1994, they celebrated the birth of this business idea. Remember that all Major League clubs wore anniversary patches in 1994 to celebrate the 125th. The patches were all identical, featuring the MLB batter logo, except for the Reds’ patch which had a photograph of the 1869 team.

Rituals, neumonics, and traditions connect us to a narrative-line. The singing of the national anthem prior to the game began in war-time and frames the event as a community event. Managers wearing uniforms is a legacy of the time when most managers were also players.

Major League Baseball has become a slave to the economics of television and broadcasting. It is such a significant issue that its current deal with DirecTV is receiving scrutiny from Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and his colleagues in Congress. You would be a slave too if the television industry was paying you billions of dollars.

Major League Baseball is a professional company whose goal is to maximize profit and the return on the investments of its capitalists, the owners. This is all well and good. I enjoy consuming the product that MLB offers. And, MLB, for all of its smart minds, could find a way to balance the pressures of a national television contract and its desire for a unique Sunday night, single opening game product, with the pull of traditions that have made the game what it is. There is no valuable game without the work of those who came before us, especially the Reds.

Let the Reds have the Sunday night telecast. I will watch on Sunday night - not because it is the Cardinals and Mets - but because it is professional baseball and the game counts. Outside of St Louis and the New York metropolitan area, I suspect so too will most other fans. Opening Day – even Opening Night - belongs in Cincinnati.


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