Opening Day is not what it used to be but that's just fine

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-- Frank Deford, "Spring Has Sprung," in the April 10, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated

Well, that is not quite true anymore, is it?

Opening Day is today, a week after the Major League Baseball season began, and a day before I thought it began, when the St. Louis Cardinals play the Miami Marlins. The Cards are the defending champs, of course, and the revamped Marlins are hoping a new ballpark, high payroll, and manager Ozzie Guillen can get fans excited, or at least get them to show up.

Then, the next day, there are seven more games. And Friday there are nine more. And last week, the A's and Mariners played a pair of games in Japan, which roused my interest exactly as much as a pair of A's-Mariners games in Oakland. This is to say: Not at all.

So I guess today is Opening Day. I'm still not quite sure.

Opening Day is not quite what it used to be. But I won't whine about that, or long for the days of yesteryear, when everybody knew when Opening Day was and writers could type "days of yesteryear" without sounding like complete dorks.

Times change. Baseball is, in many ways, as popular as it's ever been -- and better, too. The regular season is more exciting. So many more games are available on television, and technology has made it a lot more fun to watch. We know so much more about the best pitchers, hitters and fielders, and what it really takes to win (thanks to better stats, unless you are anti-intellectual and reject them all). The typical pitcher throws harder than he did 30 years ago, and I suspect that most curveballs break more sharply. Hitters adjust quicker. More fans live within driving distance of a major league team, and even the lousiest ballparks are pretty nice.

So I'm not complaining. Baseball is better. But Opening Day is like college football's bowl season -- it's spread out for marketing reasons, and not as great as it used to be. It's a casualty of progress.

I spent some time this week trying to think of how baseball can make Opening Day one of the biggest days on the sports calendar again. SPOILER ALERT: I couldn't do it. Part of the problem is that Opening Day is about hope and dreams and innocence, and so much of the modern sports landscape is about firing that idiot and trading that jackass.

There are logistical issues, too. Opening Day is wedged between two events that are undoubtedly bigger: the men's Final Four and the Masters. Ideally, baseball's Opening Day would be the Monday after the Masters -- perhaps with a single, marquee Sunday night game after somebody picks up the only green sport jacket in the world that is acceptable to wear. I think we would all get fired up, watching the leaders at Amen Corner, knowing that the next day was Opening Day. This seemed like a great idea to me until I thought about watching the World Series on Thanksgiving. As long as baseball is determined to stick with a 162-game schedule AND expanded playoffs, the season has to start before the Masters.

I kept thinking about this, and then I realized: Does it even matter anymore?

The NFL season used to start on Sundays, because every game was on Sunday, except one, which was on Monday. Now the NFL opens with a marquee game on Thursday night, which draws 147 million people to their television sets, because it's early September and we're all shaking because it's been seven months since our last NFL-game morphine drip. This would make you think that baseball can do the same thing, but it can't. One regular-season baseball game to start the season just isn't Cowboys-Giants.

Baseball could have everybody start the season the day after the Final Four. In time, that would become a tradition, if not a Tradition Unlike Any Other. But let's face it: Major League Baseball has decided it is more important (read: more profitable) to send teams overseas a week early than to have a real Opening Day.

The fact is, Opening Day was great when seasons actually ended. They don't end anymore. One of the biggest days of the NFL year happens in April. I don't know how to quantify the money the NFL makes from the draft, but when you consider how many people watch NFL Network draft specials, read stories on about the draft, watch the draft and buy jerseys of players who just got drafted, a rough guess would be: a lot.

Baseball does not really need to announce its presence on the sports calendar, because baseball is always present. When the World Series ends, we talk about free agency. And trades. And then spring training, which is not about training anymore, and is only marginally about the current season -- it's a time to talk about prospects and impending free agency and arbitration clocks, and to wonder WHAT ON EARTH the Reds were thinking when they gave Joey Votto a 10-year extension, on top of two years he has left on his deal. Votto is a great player and all, but 12 years? What did his agent ask for? Fifteen years and naming rights to the ballpark?

The fact is, baseball season does not start on Opening Day anymore. That is just when the games start. And I'm glad they're here.