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The Mirage of Opening Day

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English: Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay.

Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay. (Wikipedia)

“Hope springs eternal on Opening Day!”

You’d think this was the introduction to the Astros’ inaugural AL broadcast Sunday night as they brace for their third straight 100-loss season, but it happened to be a platitude from the pipes of Michael Kay.

You might recognize Kay as the Yankees’ play-by-play announcer for the YES Network since 2002, meaning he’s seen four 100-win seasons, five 95-win seasons, one 94-win season and one nearly apoplectic 89-win season back in 2008 that nearly caused the world to tilt off its axis.

Considering the team that employs him has 1,450 career home runs on the disabled list, with timeframes ranging from soon (Derek Jeter) to long enough to twice more be linked to steroids (Alex Rodriguez), perhaps Kay was simply preparing the Bronx for the possibility of – gasp! – the franchise’s first losing season since 1992. After all, that opening day lineup included Ben Francisco, Jayson Nix, Plenty O’Whiffs and Francisco Cervelli, at least three of whom are real baseball players.

That’s the plight of Yankees fans –knowing their team is not definitively the best team in their division for one of the only times in the past 21 years.

While the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since ’92, the Pirates – as it’s been rather well-documented – haven’t had a winning season in that exact same stretch.

If opening day around baseball is supposed to signal new hope and the first signs of spring around the majors, for Pirates fans it’s like opening Christmas presents with the knowledge your father will be laid off by June. There’s some excitement and optimism early on – what will Andrew McCutchen do for an encore? When will Gerrit Cole arrive in the majors? Will Jalapeno Hannah win the Pierogi Race more or less often than Sauerkraut Saul? – but it’s all false optimism amid a vicious cycle, knowing that by September they’ll almost certainly be rendered irrelevant once again.

The pomp and circumstance and – at least in everywhere but Tampa – the chance to sort of be outside makes baseball’s opening day unique, but where are we by the second game of that first series? The crowds of 40,000-plus that were packing places like Kansas City, Seattle, Cleveland and Oakland are down to 15,000 or so by game No. 2. Attendance picks up in the summer when the sun is shining and the beer is flowing, but more so than any other sport that’s because attending a baseball game is an event. The product on the field matters in the grand scheme of contention, but any franchise with a decent marketing department, a stadium that’s not falling down and enough fireworks and bobblehead nights can draw 2 million fans over the course of 82 games.

Even for bad NBA teams, a season opener generally offers the chance to see a top draft pick make his debut in a league that’s defined by star power. Eleven of the last 12 NHL No. 1 picks have been on the ice at the first opportunity with their new club. NFL openers practically feel like playoff games themselves considering the significance of every win in a 16-game season, but there’s hope even for the also-rans. For 10 straight seasons, an NFL team that finished in last place the previous year went on to win their division the following fall.

That’s happened the last two seasons in baseball – the 2011 Diamondbacks and 2012 Orioles – but those weren’t cases of a bevy of star prospects hitting the big stage and fulfilling their potential. Arizona was a statistically mediocre team that was below .500 until late May and took advantage of a weak division. Baltimore had a run differential roughly equivalent to a .500 team that wound up riding some amazing luck in one-run games to a 93-69 finish.

orioles

“A baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint,” Michael Kay probably said at some point during the Yankees’ clunker of a season debut against the Red Sox.  In this case, he’d actually be right.

The season’s not going anywhere. There’s no shame in keeping that foam finger in the closet until you have 60 games or so worth of evidence to find out if your team is a legitimate contender or if its home games will exist solely to sell beer and to drown the sorrows of a 104-year-old drought.

After the last 20 seasons, I already have a pretty good idea.

mccutchen

Wait, that’s not right.

pirates sad

There it is.

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