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There’s something spiritual about Opening Day in baseball. Spring invites a sense of new beginnings. The standings for the home team show no losses. Both committed fans and those with only passing interest in baseball tune in. Everyone gets a fresh start on Opening Day. “When you win the first one,” as Early Wynn noted, “you can’t lose ‘em all.”
When I think of Opening Day, I can’t help but think of my 92-year-old Dad. Born in Maryland in 1915, he grew up in Westminster, Owings Mills, and Baltimore, a child of the land and a child of a deep faith. Right alongside his religion and his family came his love of baseball.
Because his parents moved to New York before the Crash, he became a Yankees fan for a few brief years. The legacy of living in New York was his love of the Murderer’s Row lineup of the ’27 Yankees, which he could recite complete with batting stances, averages, and home runs for each man. “Combs, Koenig, Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, Lazzeri…” he would announce, “one hell of a lineup!”
But his deep love was Baltimore, Ruth’s hometown and later Orioles country. And though I was born in Boston and so a Red Sox fan for life, I cherished the trip to Memorial Stadium for Opening Day with my Dad, Sargent Shriver. He would move through the park, greeting ushers, stopping strangers to discuss the day’s pitchers, seeking out politicos for a vigorous handshake. I felt so much a part of him there, and while we were surrounded by 40,000 friends, somehow he was all the more mine.
The baseball of his time was at the center of the nation’s story. It was the sport that echoed of the agricultural past, that launched the idea of the hero in Ruth, that hemorrhaged through Jackie Robinson’s first season, that was disrupted but unbowed by the wars in Europe, the Pacific, and Korea. Baseball’s symmetry was symbolic of the country’s: the purpose was clear, the roles defined, the competition rough.
Like many men of his time, my Dad was not content with the country he was given but neither did he doubt its greatness. He sought to change what he could with an undying optimism and relentless effort. Among his great gifts as a father was to bring his life’s mission alive in moments that combined work, play, and family.
On a Saturday afternoon at home, we would play catch and he would hit me fly balls. It was our ritual: the gloves, the long smooth tosses, the lazy looping hits that settled in my glove. It was life made simple: a man and his boy playing ball.
But that same day would inevitably include friends from work. In my childhood, he was immersed in the Peace Corps and later in Head Start, Community Action, Legal Services for the Poor. His faith in social justice, in living the Sermon on the Mount, in trying his best to uproot fear or intolerance or the grinding pain of poverty animated his life.
His colleagues were always around from breakfast on weekdays through planning sessions on weekends. We kids were there too, and somehow he made of us all a whole: work, social change, faith, family, mission. He believed we could do it all together and make the world new. He felt it was his role, his faith’s calling, his country’s mission: he believed in the possible.
Today’s world feels ages removed from his. On opening day in Washington, our President is unpopular, our role in war is deeply divisive, our fear of the future palpable. We feel like a nation divided.
But Opening Day is a reminder: we can live a fresh start. We can teach our own sons and daughters to believe in their country and in making it better. We can search for our own generation’s combination of hope and purpose.
Today at 92, my Dad didn’t make the trip to the park on Opening Day. The politicians don’t call as much anymore. His step is more guarded now. His recall of the ’27 Yankees is gone. He’s faced his own murderers’ row these last few years: Alzheimer’s, cancer, my mother’s failing health. Now the trip to the park is a little too demanding. Maybe we’ll make it once or twice this year, maybe not. Health is fleeting.
But those long tosses in the backyard, those hours of fly balls, that sense of searching for the action, the game, the umpire’s voice saying “play ball”—those are the gifts I associate with him that are renewed this year on Opening Day.
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to understand them. And you don’t have to go to the park to create your own opening day.