Baseball, however, hasn’t gotten the memo. Despite the wide range of team payrolls, parity has become an unexpected fixture in America’s pastime. There hasn’t been a back-to-back champion in baseball since the New York Yankees completed a three-year run in 2000. Since then, some strange things have happened. The Boston Red Sox broke their fabled 86-year curse, the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series since 1917, and the Chicago Cubs unhexed themselves after 71 years. Over the past 18 seasons, 12 teams have won the World Series. As Opening Day madness arrives each year, hope springs eternal — with warm weather, hot dogs, vitamin D and tantalizing possibility.
Nothing rouses the national spirit with more naive purity than the start of baseball. With each first pitch comes the end of a seasonal disorder. On Thursday, much of the country jumped back to life after months of hibernation. Home teams trotted out their achy, aging former stars as good-luck talismans from the glorious and heroic past. For fans, Opening Day means there’s no panic or heartbreak yet; millions begin to nurture the secular prayer that this year could be the year.
The start of baseball is different from the beginning of other seasons, and not just because the games mark the end of winter. There’s a Puritan rigor to baseball that doesn’t exist in other sports. Unlike in football or soccer, there are no ties, and, in a natively American way, there is no tolerance for nuance. A player is safe or out. A ball is fair or foul. A game is complete only when one team defeats the other.
Unlike in other major sports, there are no ticking clocks. In a time of pathological digital distraction, this means that games require a bit of in-real-life fixation from observers, even if it’s just a soft focus. We all find our own ways to engage: Enjoying a game can mean knowing who’s on deck, watching an outfielder idle on a giant patch of grass or guessing how a team might try to move a base runner over to second. It’s a cherished diversion that is both communal and individual.
Baseball skeptics are justified in finding all of this strange and tedious. The odds are against a batter in every at-bat, which can make a hit seem like a minor miracle and a true hitter seem like a god. But this is also a hallmark of the sport’s thrilling democratic character: Over the course of 162 games, even a star can have a slump, and even an average player can put together a streak. It’s also not wrong to complain that a game can take anywhere from two to five hours, although that’s mostly meant to be a feature, not a bug. Yes, it’s also bizarre that the two leagues in the majors have a glaring difference in their rule books — the designated-hitter rule — even if this topic offers one of the quickest ways to start a Talmudic discourse in a bar.
But there’s charm even in the quirks. Although a baseball diamond has set dimensions, no field of play is the same. Each ballpark has its local irregularities, whether it’s a short porch in right field, a Green Monster, totally impractical ivy-covered walls or an aquarium full of dozens of cownose rays. Visiting every baseball stadium is a top-tier bucket-list item because each place is deemed a worthy destination.
Opening Day unlocks these ritualistic floodgates as well as the thrill of idle daydreaming about what might be. In 2017, my team, the Houston Astros, broke through for the first time, ending the franchise’s modest-seeming 55-year drought. To win the World Series, the Astros had to beat the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Dodgers — arguably the three most storied franchises — in succession. That season’s plot points involved the dramatic midseason arrival of Justin Verlander, a star longtime pitcher, in a trade conducted seconds before the league deadline; two extra-innings World Series games; and two tense Game 7 playoff wins, all while the city struggled to recover from a devastating hurricane. There’s no amount of springtime prophesying that could have made that seem possible.
Of course, last October, the Astros fell right back to Earth again, and another team took its rightful place at the top. That’s baseball, the most microcosmic of national pastimes. Part myth and part amnesia. After Thursday afternoon, October is already a distant memory. Kids roamed the stands with their gloves in hopes of snagging a foul ball. Workers who hadn’t called out of the office slyly tuned in. Everyone was back in the conversation.