In 1991, along with scores of others, I spent Opening Day on the sidewalk across from Tiger Stadium. I was among the crowd boycotting the game because Bo Schembechler had fired Ernie Harwell over the off-season. That ended a personal streak of seventeen consecutive years attending Opening Day games at Michigan and Trumbull.
Opening Day is a rite of spring in Detroit, but really it’s the worst day of the entire season to see a game. The ballpark is packed with legions of people who come just to drink and party, not to watch baseball. It’s an intoxicating civic holiday to be sure: an occasion to skip work or school and celebrate the sap flowing. And the saps sure do flow.
Opening Day is the official end of winter no matter what the calendar says. It’s a time of rejuvenation, a chance to once again read box scores that matter and watch pitches and at-bats that are meaningful. The fact that baseball seasons have been opening for so many decades only enhances the day’s regenerative powers, with its unlimited promise.
Though I’ve been to a lot of Opening Days, I don’t recall many games as being particularly memorable. I do still vividly remember one opener in the 1970s when the Tiger Stadium bleachers were at the height of their rowdiness and bottles were flying all around me. Drunk people throwing projectiles does not make for the best atmosphere for watching a game.
For years a few of my friends made a tradition of making the second home game of the year their personal Opening Day, which was a great idea: the crowds were smaller and much more sober.
This year, for the first time since 1991, the Tigers’ home opener is against the New York Yankees, which will ensure big crowds for each game, because New York doesn’t come to town again all season, thanks to the quirky schedule these days. It’s sure to be a packed house all weekend, full of the anticipation of what looks to be a very promising season. Every sentient baseball observer is picking the Tigers to win their division, and Mike Ilitch has gone all in, by opening his bank vault to Justin Verlander, acquiring Torii Hunter, and securing Anibal Sanchez. Whether the club will reach the World Series, much less win it, depends a lot on chance, but the front office has put the team in position to do so. The Tigers now have one of the half-dozen biggest payrolls in all of baseball. They look much better than the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the fading elite two, and they can certainly compete with the Angels and Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, the rest of the league’s new top tier. So there’s plenty to look forward to as we celebrate Opening Day this year. The promise is not merely symbolic; it’s real.
The Tigers will be looking to extend their home opener win streak to five. They are 61-50 overall on Opening Day, with one tie. The winning tradition was established at their very first home opener, April 25, 1901, at Bennett Park. And the fans played a key role in it. Trailing Milwaukee 13-4 in their last at-bat, having committed seven errors, the home team batters started lofting flies into the overflow crowd standing behind ropes in the outfield. As the improbable rally continued, the fans surged forward against the ropes, ever closer to the infield. Everything hit into the crowd was a ground-rule double. Detroit ended up winning 14-13, thanks mostly to the fans literally shaping the game. More than eleven decades later, it remains the greatest last-inning comeback in major league history.
So it’s unlikely Detroit will ever see a better Opening Day, but any kind of win over the Yankees will be a good harbinger — well, sort of. The last time the Tigers were world champs, in 1984, they beat the Rangers 5-1 on Opening Day. But the previous three times they won it all — in 1968, 1945, and 1935 — they lost the opener. So whatever the result, don’t cry in your beer, and enjoy the festivities.