The Pageantry of Opening Day

Opening Day Vagabond

Photo Courtesy of Minda Haas

Someday I’m going to have to own-up to the fact that I’m an Opening Day vagabond. After growing up in a state with zero major sports teams, switching my allegiance after the age of 30, and moving around the country – somehow the biggest baseball fan I know (me) has never been to an opening day game in his life.

My best opportunities have come over the past nine years after settling in Kansas City. Back in 2003, I still considered myself a Houston Astros fan, having worshipped Nolan Ryan as a kid, so I didn’t really even consider going to the Royals Opening Day festivities. I was still a bit naïve to the spectacle & was happy to catch a game or two on ESPN that day. Besides, the Royals were coming off a 62-100 record in 2002, so I don’t recall there being much buzz around the event. The Royals won that day, starting a two-year streak of Opening Day victories against the White Sox at home. The 2004 game was probably the most exciting in the club’s history & featured their only Opening Day walk off home-run. An incredible six-run rally in the bottom of the ninth in front of 41,575 people made me wish that I had been there in person instead of in my apartment.

2005 was the team’s worst season & the Astros went to the World Series, so I was still content with my decision to root for the out-of-town team. However, around work, I started to hear about people’s grand plans for Opening Day & by now I was getting a bit baseball envious. Maybe I needed to take this thing more seriously. As some of my Houston heroes retired, I allowed myself to pull for the Royals & was amazed by how easy it was to follow a local team. News and information was everywhere – on the radio, in the newspaper, and the games were on TV most nights. I had to strain to get updates on my Astros & didn’t get to see them play on TV very often.

I did my best to try and go in 2006 & 2007, but was unsuccessful. Work obligations and inability to find a ticket at the last minute forced me to watch tortuous gameday updates on my computer or record the game for later viewing. They opened on the road in ’08 & ’09 & the best I could do was listen to a radio broadcast via the internet. Last year, I met some friends at Buffalo Wild Wings a couple of innings late & worried the whole time about getting caught skipping work.

My travel schedule prevented me from going yet again this year, but I had a friend get in touch with me a couple of weeks ago, asking if I wanted to hop over to the 810 Zone at Harrah’s to watch the game. As disappointed as I was to be missing out on yet another Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium, I was happy to sit in the company of a great Royals fan & enjoy some afternoon baseball. And so, for another year, my life’s most conquerable quest has been delayed yet again. At least this time I thought ahead enough to ask for the afternoon off from work.

Upon entering the sports bar, I located my old friend seated at the bar directly in front of two flat screen TVs showing the Yankees/Tigers game. I found myself smiling. The rest of the place was pretty empty, just the occasional Casino drifter stopping in for a drink. (Happy Hour starts at four) After exchanging hellos and how’s works and how’s families, we settled in to see what the 2011 Royals had to offer. With the TVs finally switched over by the apathetic bartender, we ordered afternoon beers and offered up a cheers to the boys in blue.

When the dust had settled 3 hours later, all we had to show was an 0-1 record and an empty “Triple Play” appetizer plate. While it was a tough loss to swallow, I thought the team showed some guts in game one. The guys got off to a slow start offensively, but hung around long enough to get Jeff Weaver out of the game and get after the Angels bullpen. Though they didn’t deliver in a couple of big spots, the team did not back down from a 4-0 deficit and still had a chance to win it in the 9th.

Luke Hochevar (Getty Images)

We were both impressed with how Luke fought his way out of a couple of jams – in as early as the top of the first. After the Aviles error & a hit batter, we had both given each other that “here we go again” look. But the Royals Ace(?) bore down and made good pitches to get out of the inning unscathed. However, it seemed like mistakes rattled him & hurt his overall effort. After giving up the home run to Hunter in the 4th, he allowed back to back doubles before getting out of the inning. And perhaps his worst moment of the day came in the 6th, after giving up the home run to Mathis. He fielded a well placed bunt and instead of being content with the infield single, threw wildly towards first. Kila had no play, and Getz made another poor throw backing the play up, causing another error and the carnival music to play my head. Bourjos scored on a base hit by the next hitter & Luke’s day was done. 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 5 K, 0 BB. It could have been a lot worse than 4-0…

From there, a HUGE positive was that the bullpen took the game over and held the Angel offense in check the rest of the way. I was excited for the trio of relievers who made their Major League debuts on Thursday, combining to throw 3 2/3 scoreless innings. I thought it was a nice move by Ned to get those guys out there & let them prove their worth right away. It may be a tough pill to swallow that this year’s successes may not be able to be measured in wins, but in individual performances.

The great (ok, fictional) Indians broadcaster Harry Doyle once said, “A lot of people say you can tell how the season’s gonna to go by the first hitter of the year”. Well, if that’s the case, then we all ought to go back to our caves for the summer. Mike Aviles, leadoff hitter by default, struck out looking to begin a 1-2-3 bottom of the first. He’s a bit of an interesting choice to lead off, but is doing so in part because he led the majors last season with a .412 average and a .450 on-base percentage when leading off an inning.

Melky Cabrera made a good first impression, collecting the Royals only two hits against an otherwise Lights-out Jeff Weaver. Weaver’s funky delivery did enough to keep the KC hitters off balance through his 6 1/3 innings. Pitchers are going to be ahead of the hitters at this point in the spring, and it’s important to remember that only days ago these guys were running around in 80 degree weather. To come home to a temperature half that has an affect on you – no matter what you tell yourself.

Once Weaver left the game, however, the team that led MLB in runs per game this spring at 7.1 finally showed up. Jeff Francoeur, who was one of the few Royals NOT to hit over .300 in Surprise introduced himself to Royals fans by turning on a pitch in on his hands and smacking it into what is now the Royals bullpen in left-field. Let the record show that this happened directly after I said, “Francoeur needs to do something here…”

Alcides Escobar & Matt Treanor joined the party, getting hits and digging deeper into the Angels bullpen, but were both stranded on the bases, a trend that would continue through the end of the game. The Royals left the bases loaded in the 8th & stranded two more in the 9th. Alex had a couple of big opportunities in Thursday’s game, but I thought his much-heralded swing looked slow and long, and that he was reaching or overdoing it most of the day. His big swing in the 9th made our stomachs drop for a second, but that cruel opposite field slice took the wind out of our sails. After that, a couple more great big swings came up empty and there was a collective groan from the thinned out 810 Zone crowd. Another Opening Day with a lot of promise, pomp, & circumstance – but no win.

With the loss, the Royals dropped to 15-28 on Opening Day (10-13 at home). This is their third straight Opening Day loss since winning in 11 innings back in 2008. Bad, sure – but opening day does not a season make. In the grand scheme, it is only one of 162 games, and counts just as much as a loss in the middle of July. Still though, you would love to send what could be the biggest crowd of the year home happy.

Now, while I wasn’t one of the 40,055 in attendance on Thursday, I had a great time watching it on TV, mixing it up with the dozen or so other Royals fans who found some sort of excuse not to be in attendance. We cracked jokes, had doubts, found faith, scooted to the edge of our barstools, and dropped our heads in unison. Upon leaving, there was a splinter among those fans. While most of us could see the positives, a few had already leaped off the bandwagon with heavy shoes. We shook our heads – those aren’t fans worth having anyway.

As far as the vagabond? Don’t worry about me, I’ll be at the K for Opening Day next year. Unless they open on the road. Or unless it’s too cold. Or unless…

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Tags: AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Kansas City Royals KC Luke Hochevar Mike Aviles MLB Royals

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