HAZELWOOD: Indians Opening Day is all about the memories

Mark Hazelwood • Apr 6, 2018 at 12:15 AM

In reality, it’s just another game.

Quite simply, it’s one game out of six full months worth of baseball. But in the perspective of many, it’s not just another day at the diamond.

A professional baseball game will be played in downtown Cleveland today — the 118th time the Cleveland Indians franchise has opened its gates in the city. The Indians host the Kansas City Royals at 4:10 p.m. in the home opener of the 2018 season at Progressive Field.

But what really makes today so special? After all, there will at least be another 80 scheduled games in Cleveland — a majority played in much warmer weather. So why does writing this feel like the night before a holiday that involves gifts?

Because it’s a generational event. Even to the most casual fan, Opening Day for the home team sparks a passing interest. A certain amount of electricity will be in the air — whether the Tribe has a good or bad team, or high or low expectations for the next six months.

Players from both sides will be introduced and line up down the first and third base lines. A giant American flag will be unfurled in the outfield, with red, white and blue buntings hung up throughout the soon-to-be 25-year-old stadium. It screams America’s pastime.

The fact that today is the 25th home opener at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is the perfect example of why this is an event, not just a game. Who could ever forget the first game played at Progressive Field?

On April 4, 1994, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Hall of Famer Randy Johnson came within six outs of matching another Hall of Famer, Bob Feller, for the only no-hitter ever thrown on Opening Day — with Feller in the press box frantically pacing, demanding the home team get a hit.

Sandy Alomar, who will be standing at first base today as a coach for the Tribe, broke up the no-hit bid, and the Indians eventually won 4-3 in 11 innings.

But for me, the most special thing about Opening Day is the memories created, and being able to think back on them. There are a lot of years where those memories are family or friend-related, and very little to do with the game itself.

This will be my 11th out of a possible 25 home openers I’ve attended at Progressive Field — not quite half. While that doesn’t seem like a huge figure, it also means I’ve spent one-third of my life making the annual trip to Cleveland for this game — and nearly all of my adulthood.

My older brother by six years has been with me to each of those games except one. He lives out of town and we don’t see each other frequently, but this is one event on the calendar we both know to pencil in.

I think when you talk Opening Day memories in Cleveland, much of it seems to revolve around the weather — with today likely to be no different. There have only been two home openers in the last 17 years that had a first pitch temperature higher than 60 degrees.

One of those openers was last year at 67 degrees, although I can assure you, it didn’t last long. By the time Michael Brantley won the game with an RBI double in 10 innings, it was right around 40 degrees.

Today it will be about 45 degrees at first pitch, though wind chill will be in the high 30s. But this will be nowhere near the top two coldest games in the Progressive Field era of openers — and I was at both of them.

In 2003 against the Chicago White Sox, the first pitch temperature was 34 degrees on that wonderful April 8 day. I’m pretty sure my brother hasn’t forgiven journeyman reliever Chad Paronto, who left town with an 0-4 record and a 4.89 ERA, for losing that game, which we stayed till to the bitter end, in extra innings.

No one can forget the 2007 home opener that never finished against Seattle. It was 29 degrees at first pitch, and we all sat through not one, but three snow delays. At first it was amusing to watch the grounds crew members using leaf blowers to clear snow from the outfield.

But few were laughing when Paul Byrd’s no-hit bid was stopped one out shy of an official game (five innings) because Seattle hitters complained the snow was too heavy to see the ball.

On the field, I’ve seen memorable grand slams hit by Travis Fryman (2002), Travis Hafner (2004) and Casey Blake (2006) on Opening Day in Cleveland.

And, one of the special quirks about standalone home opener memories is names such as Ryan Drese and Josh Outman have victories for the Indians in the Progressive Field era. They’re not even close to household names in Cleveland, but those who were at those two games in 2002 and 2014 will remember them.

Overall, the Indians franchise is 60-57 in home openers, just a tad above .500. The Tribe has also lost seven of the last nine openers since 2009.

But today, none of that will matter. Opening Day is unique because you’ll experience something from the game or surrounding the game that you’ll never see again.

So I’ll get up bright and early and head downtown. My brother and I, along with two friends will walk past Terminal Tower, which will be flying a Chief Wahoo flag, and head to Paninis — like we have for years — and eat a slice of pizza before the game.

We’ll then watch with a sellout crowd as another AL Central division title pennant is put up on display in right field. Corey Kluber will be presented his second Cy Young award, the only Indian to ever win the award twice.

And in a tradition like no other, we’ll let our minds drift as the first pitch by Carlos Carrasco is thrown today and ask: Is this the year?

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