Opening Day still matters in Cincinnati


Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason they call it The Show.

Major League Baseball is more than a game. It’s an experience. It’s a prime time lineup with a cast of characters, with 162-episode seasons, with plot twists and turns that leave viewers screaming at their television. It’s The Show.

And Monday is its season premiere.

In 1876, the religious experience that is baseball’s Opening Day made Cincinnati its mecca. With rare exception (i.e. 1990), the Reds host Opening Day’s first pitch, start the season, ride the waves of the riverside parade to home plate, and honor the past and pastime on a day when the future seems brightest and the present seems sacred.

For all of baseball, it represents that story of old: the only day in a long season when all teams are in first place, when all fans belong to the esteemed realm of the undefeated.

But beyond that cliche, Opening Day also represents Cincinnati’s season premiere. For Reds fans, The Show begins anew on Monday, and for the first time, this one-time-only cast of characters assembles on the field and on television screens. And anyone who understands television knows that the season premiere always foretells a season’s storylines, always hints at a season’s finale.

Baseball’s show is no different.

In 2013, the April Fool’s Day game was no joke. The season premiere –a 13-inning battle with the Los Angeles Angels– foreshadowed the season’s end. The 3-1 loss foretold that this was a team where the pitching could dominate with a hot hand while the offense went cold as a cadaver. Run-support and runners stranded in the late innings would become a constant theme in the story of the Cincinnati Reds, circa 2013. Their playoff-ending loss to the Pirates, with a score of 6-2 was a series finale, but not a stunner. We’d seen that episode before.

In 2012, Johnny Cueto exploded onto the scene with seven shutout innings. If 2011 had put him on the radar, the start to 2012 represented the coming storm. He’d finish the season with a 19-9 record, over 200 innings pitched, a 2.78 ERA, an ERA+ of 148, and a top five finish in the Cy Young voting. He’d finish the season as the ace of a division-winning team.

The 2012 premiere also put on display a cast of characters that could score, that could win, without huge contribution from Joey Votto. He provided zero runs, RBIs, or extra base hits in the opener, but his supporting cast carried the story to its desired end. The theme would resurface when Votto missed 50 games with a rare injury to the durable star. The team continued to win. A devastating series loss to the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs should not overshadow what was a great season, a must-see team, and must-see television.

Even in 1990, before regional cable as we know it existed, Cincinnati put on a show. The last team to end its season finale with a World Series victory also started strong. In a win over the Houston Astros, a total team effort saw this lineup of unlikely stars score eight runs on 12 hits. They never looked back. A beautiful beginning started a nine-game win streak, a wire-to-wire division lead, and World Series glory. Underdogs until the end, they were winners from the start.

So if you are truly watching, Opening Day is more than just one of 162. It’s episode one, a season’s beginning, the introduction of a new cast, new plots, and new authors scripting a legacy.

This year, it’s season one of Run, Billy, Run. The tease reads like this: Will Billy Hamilton and his promising Spring in Arizona translate to Cincinnati? Will his speed transform an offense, that last year, had little flash? How fast can a young man run with the burden of high expectations on his small shoulders, when the games suddenly count?

It’s the acting debut of Bryan Price –as acting manager, that is. And the episode promo begs the questions: How will he differ from his predecessor? From day one, will fans in Cincinnati see a more efficient lineup? A more creative use of the bullpen? A forest saved by the downturn in the production of red toothpicks?

It’s an underdog story. And like the best television shows, it begins with a bang. With a marquee match up to start the season, can this Cincinnati Reds team overcome? While the St. Louis Cardinals boast universal acclaim and depth, the Reds face doubt and disability. There is no greater measuring stick than the division’s best coming to town, where the waiting team faces a season of questionable offensive potential and a shallow roster racked by early season injuries. Can a division be decided as soon as the race starts? That might depend on how well the Reds can get off the blocks.

Maybe it’s just one game. Maybe, in the scheme of a marathon season, it doesn’t matter.

But on Monday, 135 years after baseball found a home in Cincinnati, 135 years after a nation convened in Ohio’s river city to start another sacred season, another journey will begin. At 4:10 p.m., the premiere will begin as it always does: with a pitch. But the rest will be something we’ve never seen before. The story will be new, the conflicts fresh, the main characters no longer clean and unblemished, but stained by sand and statistics.

And that matters. Because every season’s end comes from a beginning. Because the red leaves of October can’t glow in the fall if they don’t grow in the spring. Because the world has been waiting, and now, it’s watching.

There’s a reason they call it The Show.