At long last, it is here.
The two most magical words in the Cincinnati lexicon. The two words that can make people smile from ear to ear, from the littlest children in their Joey Votto jerseys to the crustiest old baseball fans, clutching their scorecards and wearing their once bright-red caps faded by countless summers in the sun.
If you love baseball, if you love the Cincinnati Reds, you have marked off the days on the calendar since the last game of last season, waiting for this day.
You have shoveled enough snow to build a Olympic ski slope, trudged through the streets in howling winter winds, seen the icicles hang from the eaves of your house, muttered under your frozen breath when the sub-zero temperatures locked up the battery of your car.
But always, always, you have had this day in the back of your mind.
It was the one thing that kept you going.
The day baseball returns to Cincinnati. The day the city celebrates a team and a game and on-coming summer. It is the day when there is no disappointment, no trepidation, no worrying about what is to come in this grueling, 162-game season.
There is just hope and anticipation and the feeling that everything is new again.
Major league baseball has 30 teams in 28 cities, from New York to Los Angeles, from Miami to Seattle.
They have fans who love their teams too. They all eagerly await the beginning of the new season.
But there is no city – not one – where Opening Day is spelled with capital letters, where it is a holiday, where the streets of downtown and the riverfront will be packed with tens of thousands of people. Most of them will have no ticket for the game – they just want more than anything to be part of the fun, part of the celebration.
We hold a parade. A big parade, the Findlay Market parade. And we celebrate all day long. We celebrate the return of baseball.
As the legendary Reds manager Sparky Anderson once put it, “ain’t no other place in America got that.”
But why here?
There is a simple explanation. It is because baseball and this team – the Cincinnati Reds – are deeply ingrained in the heart and soul of this city and region, ever since 1869, when the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, went 57-0, playing their home games on a field that was once on the ground where the esplanade of the Museum Center at Union Terminal is now.
The advent of a new baseball season has been creating memories that last a lifetime for untold numbers of Reds fans.
Today, in Great American Ball Park, there will be more than a few little boys and little girls, dressed in Cincinnati Red from head to toe, soaking in the sounds, the smells, the tastes of his or her first Opening Day.
They will be sitting next to their parents, who had their own Reds heroes – maybe the 1990 World Champion Reds, with Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo and the rest.
Or maybe it is a grandparent, whose memories stretch back in time to the days of the Big Red Machine; and even further back to Crosley Field, where they watched the raw power of a Frank Robinson or the flawless delivery of a Jim Maloney.
Everyone who has ever been to the ball park on Opening Day – be it Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, or Great American Ball Park – has his or her own memories to share.
Pete Metz, a 25-year-old Reds fan who lives now in Oakley, remembers the time when he was in the sixth grade at St. Clement School in St. Bernard.
“My parents once told our principal that they were keeping me home from school because I had ‘scarlet fever,’’’ Metz said. Of course, he had nothing of the kind – his folks took him to the parade and the Opening Day game.
“After that year, it became a running gag with the school that I wouldn’t be there that day over the next few years,’’ Metz said. “It was probably the only time I can remember my parents letting me or condoning me skipping school.”
He was just one of many generations of Cincinnati school kids who found excuses not to go to school on Opening Day. It became part of the tradition, part of the fun.
Later, when he was in college at Ohio State, he skipped classes to watch the game. He and a buddy who had gone off to college in Boston connected on Skype, faced the computer toward the TV, and ate Skyline Chili from a can while they watched the game on TV.
James Jay Lidington, who now lives in Norfolk, Va., grew up in the Cincinnati area. He only went to one Opening Day game – at Riverfront Stadium, with his father in the early 1990s.
He left Cincinnati for Virginia in 1996, but the Reds’ Opening Day still has a special meaning for him.
“I have continued to observe the tradition in small ways – a red tie or a team windbreaker,’’ Lidington said. “I’ll happily tell people who ask about the whole scenario – parade, the team’s place in history.”
These days, in a city with no professional sports franchises, Lidington said he feels “especially distant” on Opening Day from the “old ways.”
“It’s one of the few times every year when I truly wish I was back home to share the day with ‘my people,’’’ Lidington said.
Lidington is not alone. It is a longing shared by the thousands of Reds fans who grew up here with the tradition and pageantry of Cincinnati’s Opening Day and are now living far away.
Once a Reds fan, always a Reds fan.
It is a special day, too, for the 25 men who make up the Opening Day roster of the Cincinnati Reds. The players who have come here in trades or just arrived from the minor leagues marvel at how much love and enthusiasm this town has for the advent of a new baseball season.
The Reds’ first baseman, Joey Votto, one of the latest in a long line of Reds heroes that stretches back 145 years, understands better than most. Today will be his seventh Opening Day on the Reds roster.
Last week, Votto wrote a column for the Reds’ team website on the meaning of Opening Day to the players, the fans and to the city itself.
For the players, it is a relief. “We fall into a wonderful world of action,’’ Votto wrote. “No longer do we sit and wait, hope and fear.”
However, Votto said, “there is one day that is remembered and special throughout the regular season and that is Opening Day in Cincinnati. We as a group look forward to Opening Day because of the experience, but more so for what it represents: that Cincinnati Reds baseball is back.”
That it is, Joey. And we could not be more glad to see it once again.