Baseball able to give everyone a much-needed pastime

Updated: April 3, 2003, 1:56 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- As the camouflaged jeep rumbled by, 9-year-old Jimmy Anderson didn't know what to do.

All morning long he had screamed and waved as marching bands, Clydesdales and cheerleaders crawled past him along the parade route. But this time, with the imposing green jeep with black U.S. ARMY letters staring at him, the youngster froze.

President Bush
Former President Bush tossed out the first pitch at Cincinnati on Monday.

"It's OK," his father Earl said, nudging his son's shoulder with the side of his leg. "You can cheer."

"Are you sure?" Jimmy asked.

"Absolutely," his dad said. "I think they'd like that."

So he cheered. Wildly. Waving both hands high above his head and smiling with an infectious grin. The Army reservist in the passenger's seat took notice, pointing right at Jimmy before offering a smile and wave of his own. The kid was ecstatic. "Did you see that, Dad? Did you? Did you? He pointed right at me. Awesome."

Monday, at a time when nothing seems right in this world, when military vehicles send shivers down the backs of 9-year-olds and foreigners line up at U.S. embassies to burn, curse and deface the American flag, normalcy reigned in the heart of middle America for at least one day.

Dads played hooky. Kids caught foul balls. Moms stared at Ken Griffey Jr. And everyone smiled.

Whether they realize it or not, the city of Cincinnati and the Reds, in opening the sharp new Great American Ballpark, put on the ultimate pro-America rally. After all, what is more American than baseball, hot dogs and cold beer?

Nothing.

And because of that, for at least one afternoon, kids like Jimmy Anderson and the 42,343 other fans in attendance were able to forget about Baghdad and bunker busters, and instead focus on bloopers and bases on balls.

"People have been looking forward to turning on their television and not seeing someone get shot," Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said. "They want to see some bombs from Griff and Sammy Sosa -- not from the war. And hopefully we will be able to do that. Hopefully, for a little while, we can provide some sort of diversion."

On Monday in Cincinnati, the sport of baseball did just that. Nowhere were there MSNBC updates on the latest developments in Basra or CNN spots with Wolf Blitzer pondering the question of whether or not Saddam Hussein is still alive.

Instead, there were Reds fans -- before the game pondering who would get the first hit in the new stadium, and then after the 10-1 defeat arguing whether a lack of pitching or hitting will plague their team in 2003.

It was a settling sight. Civic leaders stood on the concourse, ogling over the merits of the new retro ballpark. And inside both clubhouses before the first pitch, there were the Opening Day jitters similar to what a 13-year-old would go through before the opening night of the high school play.

Opening Day will do that to you. To most people, the pure mention of the two words usually brings a smile, followed quickly by feelings of hope, of optimism and of summer. It's an inauguration in a way, a reaffirmation that spring is right around the corner and winter is over.

People have been looking forward to turning on their television and not seeing someone get shot. They want to see some bombs from Griff and Sammy Sosa -- not from the war. And hopefully we will be able to do that. Hopefully, for a little while, we can provide some sort of diversion.
Reds shortstop Barry Larkin

And few cities do it like Cincinnati, with its early morning pep rally, mid-day downtown parade and afternoon home opener. For some reason, baseball means a little more here. Perhaps it's because this is the home of the first professional baseball franchise -- the Cincinnati Red Stockings -- which was formed in 1869. Perhaps it's just a pride thing.

Whatever the case, it's a big deal. Local newspapers put out special sections, with the Cincinnati Enquirer pointing out a local barbershop that each Opening Day has the same sign in its window: "Gone to funeral. Grandma died -- again."

And local television stations started live broadcasts at 9 a.m., seven hours before the first pitch.

"A player hasn't truly experienced what Opening Day means until they've gone through it in a Cincinnati Reds uniform," former Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. "It just means more here."

And because of the new ballpark, because of the war, it meant that much more.

"It's always a special day on the calendar," said 41-year-old Andre Whitt. "I always tell my little ones when we get a snowstorm, don't worry -- there's only 35 days or whatever until Opening Day. And it lights them up."

Monday, it was the Pirates who did most of the scoreboard lighting, using a six-hit, five-run second inning to catapult them to a 10-1 victory. Though disappointment reigned, the defeat hardly sucked the enthusiasm from this city.

"No team can go 162-0," Reds outfielder Adam Dunn said. "So in no way does this loss overshadow what a great day this was. Everybody had fun."

Though it was an early-morning pep rally at Fountain Square Park that officially kicked things off Monday, it was the 84th running of the annual Findlay Market parade that got the Opening Day buzz rolling.

Everyone from businessmen, who had left their offices in a suit and tie, to homeless beggars, lined this city's downtown streets for a peak at the record 205 parade entries.

Cincinnati city councilman Jim Tarbell, dressed as Peanut Jim Shelton, stirred smiles. Shelton, a legend in these parts, sold his fresh-roasted peanuts outside Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium for 50 seasons before dying in 1982. Other city representatives dressed in pig costumes and rode down Fifth Street on the back of Harley Davidsons. Reds jerseys, hats, T-shirts and banners dominated.

"Let me ask you," Sparky Anderson said. "What other city does Opening Day like this?"

For the thousands of Americans who have gathered in recent weeks to protest, these folks gathered to celebrate.

"I think people just want a reason to go outside and cheer," Earl Anderson, Jimmy's father, said. "And what a better reason to do it than Opening Day. For Cincinnati, this is like the ball dropping in New York."

Despite the parade and the game's vehicle as an escape, inside Great American Ballpark, patriotism reigned. New York police officer Daniel Rodriguez sang, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." Lee Greenwood sang his country music hit "Proud to be an American." George Herbert Walker Bush, subbing for his presidential son, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. And when fans arrived at their seats, waiting for them was a miniature American flag.

The place is called Great American Ballpark, after all.

"I think people forget that the only reason we're able to be here, playing this game, is because of the men and women that are fighting for our country overseas," said Reds rookie Brandon Larson, whose father served in Vietnam as a Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. "It's hard to stay focused when you see a soldier get killed or a little girl get killed in war. But we did a remarkable job today honoring the troops."

When Bush took to the field, Pirate Reggie Sanders said he warned the team, which was lined along the third-base line, that, "He was going to hit us because he wanted the Reds to win. So look out."

After throwing the first pitch to Larkin, Bush made sure he didn't injure the veteran shortstop's hand. "He asks me, 'That didn't hurt now, did it?' And I'm like, 'No sir.'"

The national anthem, traditionally followed by a flyover of U.S. fighter jets, was instead followed by a flyover by a pair of non-combat military aircraft.

"That was kind of awkward, not having those deafening planes fly over," Dunn said. "But I'd rather have them over there than here."

Despite the outcome, despite the apparent holes in the Reds pitching staff, baseball will still serve a purpose in Cincinnati and ballparks everywhere this summer -- it will be what it was intended to be all along -- a diversion and an escape from the real world.

Perhaps 72-year-old Wilburt Means said it best when exiting Great American Ballpark following the Reds' defeat Monday. When asked if he had thought about the war at all during the game, Means paused, thought for a few seconds and then answered: "Actually, no," he said. "Except for God Bless America in the seventh inning. That's kind of embarrassing."

Actually, no. That's baseball.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com.