Baseball is never better than on Opening Day, but … let us rephrase that. Baseball is never more profound than on Opening Day, because truth be told, we have shivered through too many Opening Days at the old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the only blanket worth its stuff was the blanket of wet clouds that enveloped the stadium, while temperatures hovered on the wrong side of 30 and snowflakes flew in sideways off of the lake and the hometown Brewers played a brand of baseball that could charitably be described as brutal, just brutal.
County Stadium has been replaced by a semi-indoor venue and Wisconsin sports fans have been deprived of one more opportunity to show their mettle, but if you’re interested in recapturing that feeling we can recommend Minneapolis’ Target Field on April 13, White Sox Park in Chicago on April 10, or the under-construction Wrigley Field on … well, yesterday, actually. That’s how it goes for Wrigley Field these days, as park reconstruction is depriving fans of the iconic bleacher seats as well as the ne plus iconic ivy on the walls – two characteristics of the old park that were often a bigger draw than the on-field product. (That is promised to change this year. As with any prediction on this truly being the Cubs’ year, we’ll see.)
A successful Opening Day experience is equal parts tradition and temperature, so with that thought in mind, let us recommend three places for you to spend the first day of the baseball season. Tickets may be dear but there are always tickets to be had, and even if you choose to not have them the diversions around the stadium are such that you could pull into a nearby lot, fire up the grill, turn on the radio, and match the play-by-play to the cheers. There’s something to be said for that, too.
Cincinnati: Reds vs. Pirates, April 6: Regardless of ESPN’s take on the matter, Opening Day begins with the first pitch in Cincinnati. That’s how it was for forever and that’s how it should be now. It’s the only Opening Day that comes with five-way chili (we are Skyline fans; don’t ask why) and a parade – the Findlay Market Parade, put on by a bunch of local merchants to celebrate America’s Opening Day. As parades go, no one will mistake it for the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York or even Holyoke, but that’s not the idea. It involves around 5,000 people divided among bands and marching units and fire trucks, it’s 100 percent genuine and heartfelt, and it makes you say, “Yeah. This is America.”
Then it’s off to the overly named Great American Ballpark for some baseball. The GAB is not mentioned in the same breath with many of the other nouveau-retro ballparks of the same era – Target Field, PNC Park and whatever they call San Francisco’s stadium these days – but the seats are comfortable, the vistas are wonderful, the fans are knowledgeable and the team is competitive. Can’t ask for much more on Opening Day, other than this: 60 degrees at game time. Clouds or no clouds, we’re there.
San Francisco: Giants vs. Arizona, April 13: Here it is: San Francisco’s Opening Day is a week down the road from Cincinnati’s, giving you time to catch your breath. There are three great reasons to make Opening Day in San Francisco the one Opening Day to attend if you’re attending just one. First, the setting is the best in baseball. If you’re the City by the Bay, you darn well better have a ballpark by the Bay and not an abomination like the non-lamented Candlestick Park, the park of the chain-link fences and 40-mph ocean gales strong enough to blow a pitcher off the mound. Second, the food is wonderful and notable for its range. Everything from antipasti to green-curry tofu is available somewhere around the stadium, and with an artisanal brew from Linden Street or Mill Valley to wash it down, AT&T Park accomplishes the near-impossible: creating a ballpark you want to come to just for the food. It doesn’t hurt the experience that the Giants are reigning world champions, and Opening Day means a banner-raising and a handing out of rings, to the rapturous cheers of the multitudes. All Opening Days are special, but if you want one a little more specialer than the rest, this is the place to be.
Washington, D.C.: Nationals vs. New York Mets, April 6: The concept of a president throwing out the first pitch dates back to William Howard Taft and is unique in American sport. You never saw Jimmy Carter kick off in the Super Bowl, you never saw Harry Truman drop the puck in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and you won’t see Barack Obama, for all he loves basketball, throw up the ball for the tipoff tonight. (Editor’s Note: Go Badgers!) But you have seen, and will see, the president throw out the first pitch at Opening Day—but you’ll only see it in Washington, where hopes are high for the hometown Nats, mild temps are in the forecast and Nationals Park is ready. What Nats Park lacks in natural setting it makes up for with great sight lines and outstanding food. You may not want to spring for the eight-pound, $60 Strasburger (named after the Nats’ star pitcher, Stephen Strasburg), but the crab grilled cheese from the Chesapeake Crab Co. will more than suffice. And the seventh-inning Presidents’ Race has evolved from a riff on Milwaukee’s iconic Sausage Race into the most entertaining mascots’ race in baseball. And that’s a phrase that only has gravitas on Opening Day.
Along with this one, actually: Play ball!
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