Opening day much more than baseball in Cincinnati

Opening day in Cincinnati is about much more than baseball.

It’s a holiday that dates to the late 19th century that’s

celebrated with a colorful, eclectic parade that winds through

downtown and elaborate pregame ceremonies on the field.

Bars open early. And tens of thousands of people – with or

without game tickets – flock to street parties, participate in

tailgating gatherings and line up in parks at sizzling grills for

blackened hot dogs with spicy brown mustard while local rock bands

play.

Many downtown offices lay out buffets and turn the game on

big-screen TV’s for employees, and there’s usually an amnesty for

truant students and workers who make suspicious sick day

requests.

”Opening day in Cincinnati is completely unlike anything else

in baseball,” said Marty Brennaman, who on Monday will call his

40th consecutive opening day as the Reds’ radio play-by-play

broadcaster. ”That is an absolute, unequivocal fact.”

Contrary to popular local belief, the Reds’ season opener at

home every year didn’t start as an official baseball scheduling

rule because of Cincinnati’s history as home of the first

professional baseball team (the Red Stockings in 1869). Instead,

it’s because Cincinnati was one of the southernmost baseball cities

at the time and usually offered more favorable weather than

northeast cities.

”It was a quirk of the schedule in the beginning, but the fans

embraced it and turned it into a community festival,” said

historian Greg Rhodes, who wrote the 2004 book, ”Opening Day:

Celebrating Cincinnati’s Baseball Holiday” with Cincinnati

Enquirer sportswriter John Erardi.

The team began in the 1880s greeting first-game fans with

pregame concerts, cages full of warbling canaries, and bunting and

banners hanging around the stadium. Rhodes credits a

promotion-minded Reds business manager, Frank Bancroft, with

developing opening day as an annual celebration in the 1890s.

By the turn of the century, Rhodes said, downtown shops began

closing and kids skipped school, and The Enquirer wrote

tongue-in-cheek laments about the onslaught of illnesses striking

the city’s grandmothers that forced so many people to leave work

early.

Fans groups formed parades, eventually joining into the single

Findlay Market Parade that features politicians, local celebrities,

military heroes and Reds players past and present in a procession

of convertibles, horse-drawn carriages and floats. The parade also

features a city leader who dresses in top hat and tails in tribute

to a beloved peanut vendor who died decades ago.

At the stadium, there are giveaways, musical performances,

ceremonies that can be solemn or festive, patriotic flag

formations, and roaring military plane fly-overs.

During the game, the scoreboard will list the fans with the

longest consecutive number of opening days attended. It starts at

66 years.

Fans are excited that baseball is back and look forward to a

spring and summer of watching games in the scenic riverfront Great

American Ball Park, following the team on TV, or sitting in the

backyard listening to Brennaman and his colleagues, who now include

his son Thom.

”More than anything else, it’s the start of spring; just the

excitement that baseball is back and summer is coming,” said Dan

Prickel, an accountant who will be at his 41st opening day game

Monday.

Prickel’s personal tradition began like a scene from ”American

Graffiti,” with a group of Batesville, Ind., area childhood

friends – ready to scatter to colleges and jobs at summer’s end

after high school – making a pact to reunite each year for opening

day. About a dozen were there for the first one; there are three

who have returned every year.

There has been no shortage of memorable games – in Brennaman’s

first opener in 1974, he called Hank Aaron’s record-tying 714th

career home run in the first inning and a Reds rally for an

extra-inning victory. There’s also the 2011 game-ending, three-run

home run by Ramon Hernandez for a 7-6 Reds comeback.

The pregame activities are memorable, too. In 2006, President

George W. Bush, wearing a Reds jacket, showed impressive form with

a ceremonial first pitch he acknowledged he had been practicing

for. The next year, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory made an awkwardly

bad attempt, which became an Internet sensation and landed the

mayor on the ”Jimmy Kimmel Live!” TV show to relive it. Reds

outfielder Josh Hamilton got a prolonged ovation during pregame

introductions in 2007 to hail his battle back from substance

addictions; he returns Monday in a Los Angeles Angels uniform.

Rhodes said the late Reds owner Marge Schott was one of the most

ardent proponents of the opening day celebration, but had a run of

unfortunate events that included the 1996 collapse of home plate

umpire John McSherry seven pitches into the game. She vigorously

complained about the decision to postpone the game, despite

McSherry’s death that day.

In 1994, she belittled the Reds’ scheduled Sunday night opening

game, complaining that opening day games should be in daytime. She

declared the next afternoon’s game the real opening day, complete

with daylong festivities and two elephants and her St. Bernard dogs

on the field before the game.

It’s rare that opening day doesn’t bring some kind of surprise

to add to its lore.

”I just don’t think it is something that you could have mapped

out or planned,” Rhodes said. ”Now you’ve got generations and

generations of fans who have been part of it. It is just a

testament to this town’s love of its baseball team.”

Online:

http://findlaymarketparade.com/Cincinnati-Opening-Day-History

Contact Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell