In Cincinnati, Opening Day is always a cause for celebration

Tuesday April 1st, 2014

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and Reds boss Bryan Price greet one another before the season opener.
David E. Klutho/SI

CINCINNATI -- One-hundred thousand signatures on a petition and a Wizard of Oz delivering them, and yet the White House won't make Opening Day a national holiday. And while the one thing that Congress probably could agree on is the beauty and relevance of baseball in America, it isn't about to sign off on a holiday either.

Even us True Believers have to admit a national holiday would be a kind of folly. What would we do all day anyway, being that Opening Day is now taking place in Australia?

In truth, an official new holiday wouldn't make much difference, and certainly not in Cincinnati, the birthplace of big league baseball as we know it. Folks have been making a fuss about Opening Day around these parts since 1876.

"This is the first Opening Day I have been to since I retired," the Big Red Machine shortstop Dave Concepcion was saying, sipping a cream-and-two-sugars cup of coffee on the morning of the Day. Concepcion, who hung 'em up in 1988, was in town to serve as grand marshal of the downtown parade, an event they've been holding around here since 1890, when the Brooklyn Bridegrooms were winning the National League pennant. "Very exciting for me," Concepcion said. "Parade. Music. People everywhere. Baseball. Sunshine. They've been waiting all year for this. You can feel it."

One Cincinnati television station began its game day coverage of Reds Opening Day at 4:30 in the morning. First pitch was set for 4:10 in the afternoon.

By eight a.m. a sound crew was testing the speaker system at Fountain Square, where a band would play crowd-pleasing hits on a stage until the parade wound through in the early afternoon. The parade is such a big deal here that they hold it come hell (early 1980s, after the Machine) or high-water (the Ohio River tends to swell with spring rain). In 1995 the parade went off on what would have been Opening Day even though the players were on strike. No game. Just a parade!

This is no Macy's extravaganza, no giant Snoopy floating in the skies. But it is a handsome procession nonetheless. There are hardy brown horses pulling white carriages. And local merchants, and Reds players like Aroldis Chapman and Mat Latos. Even movie stars: Willy Wonka was on a float and so was Aladdin.

Yes, those last two were mainly there to delight the kids, and the streets along the parade route, and later the sold-out stands at Great American Ballpark, were crawling with the underage set. There could not have been a sixth-grade class with perfect attendance within 30 miles of the Queen City.

"The trickiest was coming to Reds Opening Day during college," says Adam Byrd, a 29-year-old accountant in Cincinnati. He and some of his friends went to the University of Kentucky. "We had to be careful not to run into our parents at the game. They were paying for our college and we were supposed to be in class. Of course, they were skipping work to go to the game themselves."

Time was, for decades, that Cincinnati hosted the first game anywhere each season. Now the Reds are in the middle of the league-wide lineup, their season starting this year late in an afternoon of Opening Days all over. That doesn't bother folks here, though, especially not when the Reds have a team like they have these days—looking for 90 wins for a third straight season—and they are playing the arch-rival Cardinals, and the game time temperature is 68 degrees. Everyone wore red, like the always do, and out front of the ballpark, where folks had been milling around for hours, just to be there, some stores were giving away coupons for free ice cream.

The game didn't turn out the way the fans hoped, not at all. The Reds really blew it in the eighth (first and third none out, couldn't score) and the Cardinals' 1-0 win came by way of a home run off the bat of Yadier Molina who folks around here regard with a hot distaste. But still, you lose some. The Reds are 66-71-1 now in their long life of Opening Days.

Cincinnati may have gone one game back in the standings, but it was still a day on which starter Johnny Cueto with his beautiful windup and his lovely hair mowed 'em down for a while. It was a day on which Joe Morgan brought out the first ball, and Pete Rose appeared on the ballpark's big screen, sitting in the crowd. Everyone made a lot of noise when they saw that. The screen also kept putting up the names of longtime attendees to Opening Day. Ordinary fans. "Don Rinker 41 years" and "Kim Bittner 42 years." Names and years like that. The lifeblood of the game,

Everyone sang along with "Cin-cin-nati-O-hi-o" during the innings break (even though the Reds already trailed by then) and the vendors did not run out of beer or soda or popcorn. And even after Roger Bernadina made the game's final out, 7:09 p.m., many in the crowd hung around awhile and watched as the grounds crew raked the infield, and pointed at the bunting blowing in the evening breeze, and reminded themselves that their Reds still had 161 games to play.

Make Opening Day a holiday? In some places, it already is.

Kostya Kennedy's new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is available here.

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