It’s Opening Day! Baseball is back, and the world is suddenly in harmony again after a challenging Winter filled with bad weather and worse news. The weather is perfect, as Springy a Spring day as ever there was, and the defending World Campion New York Yankees are opening the 2010 season against the Boston Red Sox. Play ball! It’s also Easter Sunday, or at least it was Easter Sunday until 8:05, EST, when the first pitch of the season was thrown by Josh Becket to Derek Jeter. So much for Easter, which, in truth, has only warning track power as a holiday. It would take at least a Thanksgiving, or maybe even the Big Dog, Christmas, to compete with Opening Day.

Boston’s 98 year-old Fenway Park is the perfect place to start a season, one of the very last of the old-line ballparks, a throwback to when baseball stadiums were built in inner cities and had to conform to existing streets, resulting in some odd shapes and irresistible charm. The old Yankee Stadium is gone now, replaced last year by a replica, and now there’s only Fenway and the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field remaining of the ballparks that were around when Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and Grover Cleveland Alexander played the game.

They don’t make ballparks like that anymore, and you don’t hear names like those these days. Honus, Babe, Rogers with an s, Grover, Tris, Ty and Cy? Hall of Famers all, the guys who cemented baseball as America’s pastime before baseball became the multibillion dollar business it is today. Major League teams were Mom & Pop operations by comparison, run by families and deeply rooted in the local communities. The fans considered the ball players neighbors and interacted with them as one would with the local grocer.

It wasn’t unusual to ride the subways or trolleys to the ballpark with your team’s center fielder, or to lift a beer or two with the day’s pitcher in a local tavern after the game. There were no night games, and entire families came to the ballpark, the men dressed in suits, ties and fedoras, the ladies in dresses and sunbonnets. Star players almost always spent their entire careers with one team and remained forever identified with their team’s city, no matter where they were born.

The game has changed since those days, but not all that much. It’s still nine innings, 3 outs per inning and three strikes and you’re out. Today’s athletes are magnificent physical specimens, as well cared for as expensive race horses, with teams of trainers and doctors looking after their health in order to maximize the huge investment made in them by ownership. Their personalities (or glaring lack of same) might not stand up to yesterday’s baseball heros, but one by one they are breaking all the old records, with only Cy Young’s 511 career wins considered impossible to top.

The Yankees lost the game 9 to 7 in typical Opening Day fashion; the pitchers were not so sharp but the batters were. That will change as the season progresses and their arms get loose, but yesterday was a day for slugging big hits and scoring runs, a back-and-forth game that saw the Red Sox rally late to win it. 1 down, 161 games to go. Baseball is a long season, and these long-time rivals will meet another 20 times this season. They are the two best teams in baseball this year, so look for them to clash in the October playoffs as well.

The other teams open their season on Monday, restoring normalcy to the rest of America. Every city with a Major League team gets an Opening Day, either today or later in the week when their home games commence, and the surrounding region is riveted to that soothing ritual, and to hell with whatever else is going on in the world. Odds are it’s disappointing anyway, so baseball, our old reliable and comfortable companion, gets us through life’s traumas better than any hundred statesmen. Bad news isn’t quite so dire when there’s baseball around. You have to figure, “How bad could it be? The Tigers are coming in this weekend and Pettitte’s on the mound!” Play ball!

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