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Friday, April 11, 2008
Friday By Request
Back in the swing of things with the FBR this week, I got a request that made my eyes light up and my very soul tingle just thinking about it. Seamhead Gypsy asked, “What was your most memorable opening day to the baseball season?” Ah yes, a memory so thick I have to brush it away from my face...but first, I‘ll share it!
The Finest Opening Day
The Opening Day to beat all Opening Days for me was Opening Day 1996. It was the Tigers home opener. It was MY home opener. It was my first game as a member of the scoreboard staff. It was my first Opening Day as a baseball pro!
I started with the Tigers in February as an intern. In 1996, I was trying to branch out a bit and add to my experience in media. I was a full time sports producer for the local cable company, covering high school sports and other sports events in the three communities we served. I’d done a morning internship a few days a week before work in Toledo at the UPN affiliate in creative services, and one of my sports interns referred me to his boss at his other internship, with the Tigers. He knew baseball was my number one passion and I jumped at the chance!
In February, the old Tiger Stadium was cold! Even in the control room there just wasn’t very much heat coming in. I remember standing high above in the scoreboard ops room looking down onto an untouched field of snow glistening in the dim lights gleaming out of the concourse. It was quiet. The sacred ground of baseball was asleep under its billowy white blanket waiting for spring.
I spent about 6 weeks going to the stadium 3 days a week. I learned the ropes about all of the equipment, how it worked, what it did. The part of the scoreboard that keeps track of every pitch, hit, out and error links into the MLB database. It’s imperative that the stats are correct to each ball, strike or foul per batter. Each player’s season stats are updated in real time!
I learned where the cameras are placed and how each part of the scoreboard operations show is scripted for every inning break. We updated files, grabbed new still shots from the laser disks for players on the Jumbotron, tested feeds and sound. All of it preparing for Opening Day. If we prepared well, Opening Day would run smooth and the rest of the season would follow suit.
For the 1997 season, I was the Jumbotron graphics operator. But in ‘96, I was still a utility player. There was a limited number of paid jobs and the rest were volunteer. It was beefy resume stuff and free baseball. Money for the gig would just be icing on the cake.
April 9th, Opening Day, finally arrived! I was assigned a camera grip position for pregame. Camera grip basically meant I held the camera cable, made sure the camera operator or a fan didn’t trip and protected the camera from wayward baseballs.
I buttoned up my coat, grabbed my gloves and followed the camera op out into the crisp April air. I have always loved the sounds of early spring baseball. The cold air makes the sound of the bat hitting the ball or the ball hitting the glove sharp and powerful. Add to that the sounds of the stands, the fans filing in, vendors and the recorded organ music. I’d been to Opening Day a few times as a fan, enjoying the celebration and pageantry of it, but this time I was part of the pageantry. This time I was part of making the celebration.
We took the elevator down to the top floor of the fan seating levels and walked all the way down to field level. Then we opened the access door and stepped onto the field. When my feet touched the ground, crunched on the gravel and dirt that make up the hallowed diamond dust, part of me was awestruck. Oh, it was the deep inside of me part. Externally, I was at work. It was business. But that inside part was amazed. I was the one. MY feet were making that rugged scraping sound on the dirt of a major league field. I was standing on level ground with Travis Fryman, Cecil Fielder, Tony Clark and Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. from the visiting Seattle Mariners. I was on Al Kaline’s field! We went onto the area around the pitching mound to shoot the ceremonial first pitches. The mound that Mark Fidrych, John Hiller, Mickey Lolich all called home during their careers.
I remembered so many games I’d seen at that stadium since I was a child. From the stands in the huge stadium, the field was neat, compact. I could see everything and all the players. Average men who happened to be above average players of the game I loved to watch. Now, standing on the field and looking around me, the field was huge! I swear I could see the earth curve into deep center field. And the men playing were giants. Of course, the first player I was standing next to was 6’5” Tigers catcher Mark Parent, but somehow, the men who didn’t look so big when they were walking the halls on the concourse before the gates opened, had grown to so much larger than life once they donned the uniforms and stepped onto the field.
I looked up into the stands in the stadium that had always been such a large place to me. Now it was smaller. Looking at the stadium from the players’ point of view, I could see how thousands of people watching you might not be so intimidating. How it wouldn’t blow your concentration. But I could also see how warming the fans approval could be for the people on the field too. Just as a good game is satisfaction for the fans up there, their cheers are satisfaction for the players down here.
After getting the National Anthem on camera for the Jumbotron, we left the field. A step up into the stands again and the fantasy was over. I was just at the ballpark, just at work. But for about 20 minutes, I was part of the magic that has captivated me since I was a small child. For a while, that magic surrounded me. For the rest of my days, a small part of that magic will always be with me in the vivid memory of my first steps on a major league field.