Eternal optimism rolls around every year on opening day

By : 
David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

Major League Baseball seems as if it should be destined for failure, yet the sport of baseball endures, sometimes in spite of itself. Fans across the country celebrated opening day last week with eternal optimism for their teams, just as they have for more than a century.

Starting the season even earlier than last year seemed to be a questionable decision for MLB since a record 28 games were postponed in early 2018 as bizarre weather hit the northern United States. The Minnesota Twins missed three straight days due to unplayable conditions caused by snow.

With all the extreme winter weather earlier this year, it seemed a sure bet that stadiums wouldn’t be ready for opening day once again. Yet, on opening weekend just one game was postponed — and that was due to rain.

Even more curious was the decision to open the season in Minnesota, the earliest start for the Twins at the outdoor Target Field. An away game in a warmer location would seem more appropriate.

Instead of snowdrifts and subzero temperatures that had blanketed the state earlier, sunny, spring-like 49-degree weather welcomed a capacity crowd at Target Field to watch the Twins take on the Indians, last year’s division champions.

MLB has also overcome its decision to resist the salary cap policy that exists in all other major sports to ensure parity. Baseball teams in the big markets can bankroll teams of superstars, creating a rift between haves and have-nots.

Yet baseball has the most parity of any of the major sports. There hasn’t been a back-to-back champion since the New York Yankees won its third title in a row in 2000.

In football, the New England Patriots recently won its sixth Super Bowl since 2002. In basketball, the Golden State Warriors have won three of the past four NBA championships and is one of four teams to have won 15 of the past 19 NBA titles. Hockey also has had a small group of teams to win titles in the past decade.

In baseball, 12 teams have won the World Series in the past 18 years. And, some of those have been quite unexpected — the Boston Red Sox breaking an 86-year curse, the Chicago White Sox winning for the first time since 1917 and the Chicago Cubs overcoming a hex — caused by a goat of all things — from 71 years ago to win it all.

That’s why baseball fans have eternal optimism as opening day approaches each year.

The optimism in Minnesota was a little more cautious this year after the team took a step backward last season. However, a mixture of emerging stars and recent free agent signees led to a masterful 2-0 win over Cleveland, the first opening day shutout for the Twins in 49 years.

New ace Jose Berrios, just 25, held the Indians to two hits and one walk while striking out 10. The only runs came in the seventh inning when Marwin Gonzalez hit a double to drive in Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron. All three players are newcomers, signed to the Twins during the offseason.

Teams have found that it doesn’t work to just go out and purchase an all-star team. The successful franchises in recent years have mixed homegrown talent with strategic free agent signings to build winning teams.

Even the Yankees have learned they can’t buy a title, something they tried to do decades ago. Today, Aaron Judge leads a club full of homegrown stars that is a favorite to contend this year as the team’s prospects come into their own. Sure, unlike the low budget Twins, they can still sign the big stars, such as outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but that ability has given the team just one title since 2000.

It might seem that non-standard playing fields would be a detriment to a sport, yet in the case of baseball it adds to the charm. Baseball is the only professional sport in which the dimensions of the field can vary based on the home venue.

For example, Fenway Park in Boston has the fence in right field at 302 feet, the shortest in all of baseball. It also has the shortest left field fence at 310 feet, but that is where the 37-foot Green Monster stands, leading to many balls bouncing back into play off the wall.

Minute Maid Park in Houston until recently had the most distant center field fence at 436 feet. Not only is center field deep in Houston, there also used to be a hill sloping up to the wall. Yes, fielders running into dead center had to contend with a 30-percent incline and a flagpole that was ruled in play. Although no player was ever injured on it, the hill was leveled for new seating in 2016 and the fence moved in slightly.

That left Comerica Park in Detroit with the deepest center field at 420 feet. The predecessor, Tiger Stadium, was 440 feet deep and also had a flagpole on the field.

The quirks aren’t just in the dimensions of the playing fields. Wrigley Field in Chicago has ivy-covered walls where many baseballs have been lost and the foul ball territory varies greatly from park to park. Even the climate leads to quirks as the thin air in Colorado, the swirling winds of Chicago and the humidity in Houston all affect hitting.

Baseball is also unique in that failure is the standard, something that would seem to make the sport destined for failure. Even a great hitter makes outs in every two out of three plate appearances, making success fleeting.

Yet, that ratio also provides a formula for surprise since the season is 162 games, the longest of any sport. An unfamiliar player can come out of nowhere with a hot streak to change the dynamics of a season for a brief period.

On the other hand, even a star can have a prolonged slump. Last September, Joe Mauer memorably ended a slump of one hit in 23 at bats by belting a grand slam home run. Mauer is one of the better hitters in Twins history with nearly 7,000 at bats, so that slump won’t be remembered, even if it may have been on his mind at the time.

The Twins season-long setback in 2018 is also a distant memory to fans now that opening day 2019 has come around.

After all, on Monday following the opening series, the Twins sit in first place in the Central Division, Byron Buxton is hitting .400, Berrios has a perfect record with a 0.00 earned run average and Rocco Baldelli, the youngest manager ever in Major League Baseball, appears to be a genius.

Play ball!