Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2022

On Opening Day, The Complaints Are Undying

It was 1:22 on Chicago’s north side Thursday afternoon when second baseman Kolten Wong of the Milwaukee Brewers stepped into the batter’s box at Wrigley Field as Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks toed the rubber.  A one-time Dartmouth College undergraduate whose journey from Ivy League athlete to veteran big league pitcher began when he was the 264th player taken in the 2011 MLB Draft, Hendricks delivered an 87 mile-per-hour four-seamer that Wong swung at, lofting a pop fly to Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom. With that first out, 156 days after the last out of the 2021 World Series, a new baseball season began. 

The start of the 2022 campaign, already pushed back a week by the protracted negotiations over a labor deal, was further delayed, and Wong’s and Hendricks’s headline roles in it made possible, by bad weather on the East Coast.  MLB’s original Opening Day schedule had the Yankees and Red Sox leading off with a contest in the Bronx beginning more than an hour earlier than the Chicago-Milwaukee game.  But rain in New York washed away that tilt, leaving the Cubs and Brewers and historic old Wrigley free to claim pride of place on this season’s day one.

As the two rivals from the National League’s Central Division did battle, rosters were summoned to stand along the base paths and ceremonial first pitches were tossed preceding games in Kansas City and St. Louis, with later starts on tap in Washington, Atlanta, Phoenix and Anaheim.  Local fans went home happy in Chicago after the Cubs rallied twice to pull out a 5-4 victory, with well-traveled reliever David Robertson, whose age will match the number 37 on his jersey as of Saturday, picking up the save.  The result means that for a day, at least, Chicago leads the division while Milwaukee dwells in the cellar, despite the broad consensus among analysts and pundits that the NL Central will ultimately belong to the Brewers, most likely by a comfortable margin.

Aside from serving as an obvious warning about small sample sizes, that upending of the expected order of things is a reminder of the Great Game’s randomness, the enduring uncertainty of each game’s outcome that requires this sport to have its uniquely long season.  It is the same quality that allows every fan base to approach Opening Day with hope.  To be sure, even after a shortened exhibition schedule, the aspirations that accompany the regular season’s first game may be tempered from the unbridled hope that is so rampant when players first report to Spring Training.  Fans in Pittsburgh and Baltimore can’t simply ignore the reality that they root for franchises owned by individuals far more interested in pocketing revenue sharing distributions than using those funds to field competitive teams.  But even where expectations about a club’s place in the standings are, to be polite, modest, there can be honest and legitimate reasons to cheer a veteran star returning from injury, or a promising prospect breaking through, or simply the opportunity to play spoiler in a weekend series against a front-running franchise.

And yet as the longest season gets underway this year, one can easily find complaints about baseball and prognostications of its demise.  Some of that is surely the result of the owners’ lockout.  The sport’s first labor disruption in more than a quarter century reminded fans of how greatly the greed of thirty individuals can impact the game’s direction.  We may never know just how near we came to losing part, or even all, of a season, but the unmistakable impression from the limited reporting we have seen is that MLB had a very narrow brush with disaster.

But it is also true, even if initially counterintuitive, that the caterwauling of fans is itself a sign of the Great Game’s strength.  Why complain about something that one doesn’t care about?  And down through all the decades, one enduring truth about baseball is that fans complain.  The talented Sports Illustrated writer Emma Baccellieri wrote about this in the summer of 2019, and New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner added his take just this week.  Kepner pointed out that long before Damon Runyon became one of the first sportswriters to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he had complained – at a time when games took all of two hours – that baseball “is certainly one of the slowest of sports.”  In her piece, Baccellieri dug up decades of knowing predictions about the game’s impending demise dating as far back as the first decade of the last century, concluding that “the core is the same.  There’s someone who believes baseball is dying.  There always has been.”

That’s not to say there aren’t issues that MLB should address, rather that even if it did so, fans would waste little time finding something new to complain about.  A current example is the response to multiple deals MLB has recently struck with various streaming outlets to broadcast certain games this year.  Many fans have reacted with extreme indignation, asserting that taking games away from whatever cable station or streaming source they currently use is no way to grow the game.  It’s a classic insular reaction, believing that the only way to expand the sport’s audience is by increasing its availability on one’s preferred platform.  A less self-centered view might recognize that executives at Apple, Peacock, YouTube, ESPN, Turner, and Fox probably wouldn’t pay for product they thought no one wanted to watch.

From the dead ball era before games were broadcast on radio, to the three true outcomes age in the time of streaming, the Great Game has survived, always imperfect and thus always changing.  Now we come to another Opening Day, and the hope those two words inspire.  All that remains is for the Yankees to sign Aaron Judge to a contract extension before his clearly stated deadline of Friday’s first pitch.  Because if they don’t, baseball is finished.

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