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The aura of Opening Day

For baseball enthusiasts, Opening Day means adults take off work, children are taken out of school, and college students skip class to witness the start of the MLB season.

There’s nothing like it, especially in Cincinnati, where Opening Day is an unofficial holiday. There’s the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade, which mazes through the streets of the Queen City. There are the pregame meals at Skyline Chili, where you can eat the best chili around. And then there’s the actual game.

It’s the only game of the year that it doesn’t bother me if the Reds lose. Okay, it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s also the only game where all the pregame shenanigans don’t bother me at all. How can you not get goose bumps watching a fly-over with four F-16s? Or be moved hearing the National Anthem sung by former Bengal tight end Ben Utecht?
The excitement and pure bliss in the atmosphere is contagious. If there was this much optimism in the world every day, depression would cease to exist.

That optimism also translates to the season itself. Whether you’re a Yankees fan or a Royals fan, it’s impossible to not have some glimmer of hope at the onset of the season. That brings me back to the Reds, who are trying to reverse a decade of futility.

There are no excuses for the Reds this year. Their young guys took their licks last season. Right fielder Jay Bruce’s batting average hovered around the Mendoza line for much of year before breaking his wrist. First baseman Joey Votto battled depression and anxiety issues following the death of his father.

The young starting pitching also struggled. Homer Bailey wasn’t consistent until the end of the season. Johnny Cueto was consistently inconsistent. Edinson Volquez blew out his elbow in June.

But there is palpable hope for the Reds this year. Their rotation of Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Cueto, Bailey and Mike Leake is second-best in the division behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

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The strength of the team is the bullpen, which ranked third in the NL last year in ERA and is anchored by All-Star closer Francisco “Coco” Cordero. Setting up Cordero is hard-throwing right-hander Nick Masset and ageless left-handed Arthur Rhodes.

The lineup is stocked with both youngsters and veterans. Alarmingly quick center fielder Drew Stubbs and rock-solid shortstop Orlando Cabrera will be at the top of the batting order. Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Scott Rolen will be the main run-producers. Bruce, catcher Ramon Hernandez and a platoon of speed demon Chris Dickerson and Shrek look-alike Jonny Gomes will round out the lineup in left field.

Votto is on the cusp of being a perennial 30-home run, 100-plus RBI player. Bruce and Phillips both should have 25 home runs and 90 or more RBIs. Cabrera, Rolen and Hernandez are veteran hitters with long histories of being line-drive machines and clutch-run producers. Add in the speed of Stubbs and Dickerson, and the Reds should end their run-scoring struggles.

But as always, there are “ifs” with the Reds. For baseball’s oldest franchise, injuries derailed the team last season. The opening day lineup only played 10 games together. It very well could happen again this year, as one of the team’s glaring weaknesses is lack of depth.

However, for the first time in years, roster competition is fierce. The Reds’ farm system depth is rapidly improving under general manager Walt Jocketty, who dipped into the past to recruit former Reds greats such as Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Joe Morgan to come to spring training as guest instructors.

The team also has a handful of wild cards. Volquez should be back by August at the latest and could contribute during a potential stretch run. Youngsters Juan Francisco and Yonder Alonso look like the next David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval. The Reds also have Travis Wood, who was the MLB.com Double-A Starting Pitcher of the Year, and Leake, who went 16-1 with a 1.17 ERA last season for Arizona State, waiting in the fold.

And of course, no mention of Reds’ prospects is complete without left-handed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. There’s no precedent for what Chapman can mean to the Reds. Armed with a fastball topping out in triple digits, a Randy Johnson slider and a rapidly developing changeup, Chapman has the ability to be a dominant No. 1 starter. The Reds are doing the right thing by shipping him to the minors to get him some seasoning and to adjust to the American way of life.

But my favorite thing about Chapman has nothing to do with his potential. It’s that he’s going to be essentially immune from pressure. Before he defected, Chapman was pitching in Cuba … for food. If he did not pitch well, he couldn’t feed his family. When he’s clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh inning and staring down Albert Pujols with the bases loaded and the division lead on the line, Chapman won’t back down. He’ll accept the challenge.

Which is what Chapman and the rest of the Reds need to do: embrace the pressure, revel in it and deliver a winning season to a city that’s dying for an October pennant race. Despite an Opening Day loss, there remains hope.

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