Why Opening Day is special in Detroit

The Tigers line up for opening day in 1984.

Members of the Detroit Tigers line up for opening day in 1984 at Tiger Stadium.

Everybody loves Opening Day. Lo, the winter is past, like Ernie used to remind his listeners. The start of a new baseball season is the annual renewal of hope. The boys of summer are back from Florida, the crack of the bat and the thud of the ball in a glove are heard again. The crocuses push up through a mantle of crusty snow, and nothing can stop those determined shoots.

Ever since we’ve had baseball in Detroit, no other city has matched our enthusiasm for Opening Day. Legions play hooky from work or school, and those who can’t get free from obligations find a way to sneak a listen to the radio, a glance at the TV, a peek online at the progress of the game. It’s the closest thing in Motown to a civic holiday that celebrates our local culture.

It’s a day when you feel an extra bounce in your step. Winter is finally defeated. The slate’s been wiped clean. The woes of last season, and other seasons gone by, are magically erased. Every team is in first place. No matter how your team looks on paper, you’re all equal at the starting line on Opening Day. It’s a vivid metaphor of democracy and equality.

So let the party begin. Head down to the ballpark. But make no mistake: Opening Day is the worst day of the year to watch a ball game.

It’s not because the players aren’t ready to go. The rookies are champing at the bit. The veterans, weary of spring training, are eager to play games that count. Managers’ heads are bursting with elaborate plans for the new seasons.

Not everyone is there for the game, though. In fact, many are there primarily for the party. Legions of patrons have started drinking well before noon. They’re loud. They push and shove through the gates. They stumble to their seats.

During the game, they’re constantly popping up and down the aisle and blocking your view. To visit the bathrooms, go to the concession stands for more food and drink, wave and shout to someone, or gawk at a commotion a few rows down.

These are, by and large, not the same fans you’ll see in August. Out in full force are the kind of people who gravitate to whatever the scene is—local celebrities or wanna-be celebrities or wanna-see-a-celebrity.

They’re into the spectacle but clueless about the sport. You might hear one asking another, “How many points are we winning by?” Not runs—“points.” They aren’t watching the game. They’re watching to see when a fight breaks out or when a TV camera swivels in their direction.

Thus it has always been. Though during one stretch I know I went to more than twenty Opening Days in a row, I can recall little about the actual games. They are drowned out in my memory by the banner-pulling planes buzzing overhead, the stench of beer, the fans running onto the field—including, in the 1970s, the streakers. I remember the nightmare of Opening Day 1972 in the Tiger Stadium bleachers, upper deck, but I can’t tell you anything about the game. Folks were throwing glass bottles. That was genuinely scary.

Opening Day in Detroit is a fight in search of an excuse to break out. It’s a nonstop fashion show for the unfashionably dressed. It’s a frat party with reduced hazing.

If you’re a baseball fan and you’re there to watch the game, good luck. Distractions abound at Comerica Park at every game. On Opening Day, the game itself is the distraction from the spectacle.

There is hope, though slight. If you wait it out, the party people will leave early. If excitement breaks out on the field in the late innings, you might actually get to see it. And the revelers will miss it—like the legions who left Bennett Park at the very first big league Opening Day in Detroit in 1901. To avoid the dreaded horse-drawn carriage congestion on the trails going home, or to get to the saloons before the last barrel of whiskey ran dry, thousands missed the home team’s ten-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning, still the greatest rally in the history of major league baseball.

But you can bet they told their grandchildren they saw it all.