Lack of opening day brings a whole new appreciation for it

What will you be doing today at 1:10 p.m.?

Will you turn on your television, hoping beyond hope to see Trea Turner stepping to the plate to face Jacob deGrom at sold-out Citi Field? Maybe this has all been a bad dream, a two-week-long nightmare that we’ll all wake up from just in time to watch the 2020 Major League Baseball season begin as scheduled.

scherzer-pitching-front-gray-opening-day sidebar.jpgSadly, no. This is all too real. And it’s only going to start feeling more real with each passing day as the pandemic numbers skyrocket and the names of the victims hit closer to home, perhaps so close that we start recognizing them.

Baseball is secondary right now. Not even secondary. Tertiary, or whatever comes after that. It’s the last thing anyone should be thinking about in this moment that demands our complete attention and willingness to shut ourselves out from family and friends and neighbors and, yes, our favorite baseball teams.

But it’s OK to take a moment today and shed a quick tear for baseball and for the opening day that isn’t.

There should be 15 MLB games played throughout the day, the very first of them the Nationals’ opener against the Mets. For the first time, the Nats would’ve taken the field as defending World Series champs. Sure, the real celebration - the banner raising, the presentation of rings - would’ve been a week away at the home opener. But the title defense would’ve begun today.

There’s nothing like baseball’s opening day. Other sports do other things better. But none do opening day like baseball does. There’s a reason some have lobbied to make this a national holiday, an honest-to-god national holiday.

The outcome of the first game in a 162-game marathon may not matter, but it’s not really about the outcome. It’s about the image.

It’s about a group of 25 ballplayers - whoops, 26 ballplayers now - emerging from their sun-soaked training in Florida and Arizona, bundling up in long sleeves and pullover jackets and trotting out of the dugout to take their place along the baselines, each one meriting a thunderous roar.

It’s about the ace of each team’s staff taking the mound for head-to-head pitching duels, the only day all year when managers truly have the ability to line up their No. 1 guy against their opponent’s No. 1 guy and see who wins.

It’s about giant American flags unfurled across the green outfield grass, military aircraft timing their flyovers just as the anthem performer reaches “of the brave.”

It’s about the optimism of a new year, one whose outcome cannot possibly be known yet. (How many of you watched the 2019 opener and knew the Nationals would win the World Series? Be honest.)

And mostly it’s about coming together. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons. Grandparents and grandkids. Friends and neighbors. Complete strangers who just so happen to be wearing the same cap you are, and thus have earned your admiration and respect.

It’s the first day of each year in which everyone can say: “We’re all in this together. We’re united by a common cause.”

That won’t happen today. Well, at least not in groups of 40,000 at ballparks across the country.

Thing is, it’s exactly what is happening. We are coming together, united by a common cause. We’re just doing it by making sure we’re keeping a safe distance from each other. And we’re doing it by supporting those who must put themselves in harm’s way to care for those who have become afflicted by the virus.

And the better we are at doing that, the sooner we’ll be able to gather together in groups of 40,000 at ballparks across the country.

Opening day will come. It might come in May. It might come in June. It might come after that. But it will come.

Not to turn into James Earl Jones here, but the one constant through all the years really has been baseball. It’s survived two world wars and depression. It’s survived work stoppages and scandals. It’s survived natural disasters and national tragedies. It may get pushed to the background every once in a while for more important matters, but it always comes back. With open arms for anyone ready to embrace it.

Besides, baseball is far more than millionaires playing in front of tens of thousands of fans. It’s Little League and Saturday morning slo-pitch and Wiffle ball in the backyard. It’s about - and again, not to turn into Kevin Costner here, but it’s true - having a catch with your dad.

So maybe I won’t be at Citi Field at 1:10 p.m. today. But I will be outside tossing a ball back and forth with my son. (At a safe social distance from others, of course.)

This opening day won’t be like any we’ve ever experienced before. But maybe it’ll help us appreciate just how special it really is. And why it’s so important we do whatever is necessary right now to ensure we all get to enjoy the real opening day when that glorious day returns someday soon.

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