CINCINNATI — The pomp and circumstance of Opening Day in Cincinnati is a smidge above special, the Findlay Market parade, parents excusing their children from school, the feeling of the first week of April being the start of a new year, not New Year’s Eve.
Opening Day on Monday will be this myopic observer’s 46th — 46 of the last 47 as a baseball writer covering the Reds.
The miss? It was 2006 and my father, the biggest influence of my baseball life, died on Opening Day, 2006. It was apropos. He put the fan in fanatic as far as baseball.
When he came back from World War II in 1944, after serving in The Philippines, I was four. He took me out back to play catch, taught me the game, then took me by train from Akron to Cleveland to watch his beloved Indians. His never-wavering loyalty to great, good and bad Tribe teams and his dedication to the game seeped into my body with his same devotion, even though he never understood how and why I could admire Ted Williams when the Splendid Splinter beat Cleveland manager/shortstop Lou Boudreau’s shift time after time after time.
So it was a sad few days, buoyed only by a hand-written message that arrived that week in the mail: “Senator Mike Dewine informed me that your dad passed away. I know your heart is broken. I pray for your strength and for your comfort during these tough times.”
Signed: “President George W. Bush.”
Tragedy also was in the air on Opening Day, 1996, when home plate umpire John McSherry suffered a heart attack and died just seven pitches into the game during the first inning. He whipped off his mask, staggered toward the backstop and collapsed.
McSherry was a great umpire and an affable guy, a man I got to know over the years. He was on the plus side of 300 pounds and loved to eat.
One night after a late game in St. Louis, after I finished my work in the press box, I was walking back to the hotel a short distance from Busch Stadium. As I passed a pizza joint, McSherry was sitting in the window with an extra large pizza in front of him — well, the one piece that was left from an extra large pizza.
He was a walking heart-attack-to-happen and it happened in front of 53,156 fans in Riverfront Stadium. The game was postponed and played the next day.
A few days later I discovered that owner Marge Schott had removed a card from a basket of ‘Good Luck for the 1996 season’ basket of flowers in her office and sent them to the umpires’ room. When I wrote that she had sent used flowers to the umpires she banned me from the media dining room.
Opening Day, 1998, was one that shortstop Pokey Reese would like to forget. He made four errors, three in one inning, during a 10-4 loss to San Diego.
Schott, a huge benefactor of the Cincinnati Zoo, loved to bring animals, including elephants, onto the field before Opening Day games for a parade around the field.
After Reese’s day, he said, “Instead of at shortstop, I should have been behind the elephants holding a bag. But I probably would have missed.”
I was the back-up beat writer from 1968 to 1972, so my first Opening Day as a beat writer was 1973. A year later, I witnessed history on Opening Day, 1974.
And it happened in the first inning with Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham was on the mound. He threw a fat pitch and it was driven on a high arc over the left-field wall, a three-run homer. It was hit by Hank Aaron, the 714th of his career, tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record at the time.
And the Reds won in the bottom of the 11th when Pete Rose scored from second base on a wild pitch, but Vice President Gerald Ford, who threw out the first pitch, was long gone.
Weather is always a story on Opening Day, too. It can be 80. And it can be 30. And there can be snow on the ground.
In 1977, there was four inches of snow on the Riverfront Stadium AstroTurf. The team had two hockey Zambonis that were used to squeegee heavy rainfall out of the turf and spray it over the walls. On this day, the Zambonis became snow removal vehicles, aided by a grounds crew of 60 manning shovels.
By 2:30 the field was clear and the frigid-fingered Reds beat the warm-weather San Diego Padres 5-3.
In 1975, the Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, the two teams who were to argue over the National League West all season, played 14 innings on Opening Day. The Reds won 2-1, with the game ending in controversy. George Foster was ruled safe on a bam-bam play at first base on an infield roller as the winning run scored.
And just as they had done in 1972 and 1973, it was the Reds and Dodgers contesting hotly for the title and, just as they had done on Opening Day, the Reds prevailed.
Opening Day in Cincinnati seems to have a sense for the dramatics.
There was 1979, when Philadelphia relief pitcher Tug McGraw walked Dan Driessen on a 3-and-2 pitch with the bases loaded to force in the winning run and end the game.
There was 2005, when the Reds trailed the New York Mets 6-4 entering the ninth. Adam Dunn hit a two-run home run to tie it. Joe Randa, brought in that year to play third base, then hit a game-ending, walk-off home run off Braden Looper. Randa, though, was gone the next year.
There was 2011. Same score, same inning. The Reds trailed Milwaukee 6-4 in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, catcher Ramon Hernandez hit a three-run home run down the right-field line for a 7-6 win.
Opening Day. Always exciting. Even without the game.