Anyone who can name a better day in the whole long year than the one we have right here and now wins the trophy, hands down. But there'll be no winner because there simply isn't one better than today. Christmas, New Year's, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Happy Birthday -- roll them all into a bundle, multiply them by a dozen, and you still haven't got anything that comes even close to today.
They call it Opening Day, but The Day is really more like it. After six long months, The Void is at last over. Six grim and dispiriting months in which the national pastime is exiled to exotic tropical locales will end a few minutes after 2 this afternoon, when George Earl (Storm) Davis Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles takes the mound and attempts to dispatch the Texas Rangers to the ignominy they so richly deserve. Six sad and desperate months, rife with unease and dismay, pack it in today. Hurry up please, it's time: Baseball!
Preparations for the great day have been going on for weeks. Though more psychological than physical, they are considerably more elaborate than those of Advent or Lent. Chief among them is the contemplation of weather forecasts, which in March and April is, for residents of the Middle Atlantic, conducive to quiet desperation. When it's 85 degrees one day and 55 the next, who can possibly predict with the slightest hope of accuracy -- even at 10 o'clock this morning -- what the temperature will be at 2 p.m. today or, for that matter, what the sky will disgorge upon the assembled multitude?
Impossible such prediction may be, but nevertheless for the past four weeks I have studied the published and televised forecasts as though they were Holy Writ. With joy I have watched as great expanses of clear sky move in from the West, and balmy zephyrs snuggle up from the South -- joy that inescapably turns to gloom as the jet stream dips into northwestern Canada, scoops up a few fistfuls of Sturm und Drang, and wends its icy way toward Memorial Stadium. "Precipitation activity," my weatherman calls it; my own description is, in this polite newspaper, entirely unprintable.
For reasons known only to the lords of baseball, Baltimore is considered a "Southern city" and is therefore one of the sites designated for early-April baseball. This is an honor, needless to say, and far better it is to have the Orioles home in their own nest rather than, like the Blue Jays, putting down in alien aeries at season's start. It is an honor, though, that has little to do with the actualities of April, which in Baltimore is not merely the cruelest month (an April Oriole victory is even rarer than a day in June), but beyond doubt the most vexatious, being that it yields winter one day and summer the next.
Last Friday, you will recall, was summer: shirt-sleeves, open windows, ice-cream cones -- the whole seductive, delusive number. It therefore stands to reason that today will be winter, that the down jacket and the flannel-lined trousers, optimistically removed to the attic two weeks ago, must be put into service. By late this afternoon Memorial Stadium no doubt will be a shivering mass, the coffee supply will long since have been exhausted, and fond thoughts of bracing whiskey will occupy many of the 53,000 celebrants.
But if you think any of us will care, think again. As the song says, this is it. The long winter of football and basketball and hockey is over, in truth if not in fact, and we are back in the real world. That is why by late this morning 33rd Street in Baltimore will be a gleeful mess: its sidewalks jammed with shouting fans elbowing their way toward the park, its corners crowded with vendors hawking a bewildering array of orange-and-black trinkets, its streets crammed with autos nudging their way toward parking lots and alleys. Leave for the park much later than noon and you risk missing the National Anthem: Get going!
We'll do it dozens of times before the long season is over, but the first time is always the best. Pushing our way toward the turnstiles, we're caught in a collective shudder of joy and anticipation. Walking up the agreeably dingy old ramps we spot for the first time since September the incomparably chaotic, cheerful life of a ballpark's inner depths: parents tugging kids wearing adjustable Orioles caps, jumping up and down in excitement; squadrons of beefy guys shouting back and forth, trading insults and jokes; teen-aged girls quivering over Eddie Murray buttons and Cal Ripken posters; matronly women serving up hot dogs and Coke, peanuts and -- yes -- Cracker Jacks.
We line up for the season's first jumbo nachos and 20-ounce National Premium -- the mere contemplation of which has gotten me through the past three months -- grab a fistful of napkins and head for the seats. Now the moment comes. Up the runway we go, through the entrance to Section 39, and there it is. Of all life's beautiful sights, none is more beautiful to me than this one: The baseball field on Opening Day, seen for the first time after a full half-year of deprivation. Washed in sunlight -- cold sunlight, to be sure, but sunlight all the same -- it quite literally sparkles. The grass, nurtured by spring rains, is an exquisite green; the base paths and infield a deep, solid brown; the batter's box and base lines a crisp, insistent white.
And all around this meticulous, orderly field is a riot of color and noise. Past the outfield fence a military band plays; later in the season, on warm Sunday afternoons, it will be Chicago over the PA system, jubilantly blasting "Saturday in the Park." Vendors move busily through the stands, hustling programs and yearbooks, slapping mustard on frankfurters, pop-topping beer cans. Around the Oriole dugout there's a swarm of photographers and reporters and functionaries, and above it kids wave sheets of paper, pleading for autographs. Ushers hustle back and forth, greeting old customers, sorting out various confusions, shining up seats. In the aisles friends pause to greet each other -- some they haven't seen since last September, when the Yankees closed out the season -- and catch up on a winter's worth of news.
It'll happen 80 more times this summer in Memorial Stadium, the rainmaker permitting, but it'll never happen quite like this. What today is bright and new soon enough will become familiar; we'll take the ballpark and its beauties for granted, and turn our full attention to the great game itself. But today all is anticipation and promise. Winter is over, no matter what the weatherman says; it happens every spring, praise be to the heavens, and today is The Day.