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Opening day and the thrill of resuming the mundane

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Let’s get back to normal.

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Tampa Bay Rays v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

“When does baseball season start?” is a question which is much more difficult to answer than one might think. For some, it’s pitchers and catchers reporting to Jupiter, Florida, and for some it’s when Spring Training games begin. Some would argue the season doesn’t really begin until the first St. Louis Cardinals home game of the season, a week from today against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

I think the most common answer for when the season starts is today, and I agree. After all, the Cardinals will play a meaningful baseball game, one which will impact the standings that I will be compulsively checking for the next six months, against the New York Mets in four hours. And while a home opener at Citi Field may have less sentimental value to Cardinals fans than one accompanied by a parade of Clydesdales and red jackets trotting around the Busch Stadium field, it marks a return to normalcy.

Baseball is a sport which invites die-hard fandom but it is also a sport in which having a sense of scale is necessary to retain one’s sanity. College football is an extreme example in the opposite direction—losing a single game puts a team’s chances of winning a national championship in serious jeopardy, and losing a second game makes it nearly impossible. The NFL is less extreme, but with just sixteen games in a season and one game in a week, each game is an event which can dramatically impact a fan’s mood for several days.

The 2001 Seattle Mariners famously won 116 games, tied for the most in Major League Baseball history, but this also means they lost 46 games. The best team in modern baseball history lost an average of a game or two a week. But the nature of the sport is that a loss, at least a regular season one, cannot affect you in the way it does in other sports.

There are 162 games in a season and the odds are very high that you will miss some of them. Some will be on while you’re at work, others will be on past your bedtime, others you will miss because of personal obligations beyond your control. There might be games when you are awake and perfectly capable of watching and you just don’t.

Last year, I watched the first eight innings of a Sunday afternoon tilt on May 28 between the Cardinals and the Colorado Rockies before my friends and I decided that an 8-3 deficit was not going to be overcome, so we went outside and drank beer on a porch instead. And that’s the story of how I missed Paul DeJong hitting a home run in his first career Major League plate appearance.

Anybody who has followed a baseball team for even a season knows that you’re inevitably going to miss out on some things. In a three year stretch, I missed Fernando Tatis hitting two grand slams off Chan Ho Park of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the same inning and two rookies throwing no-hitters, Jose Jimenez against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Bud Smith against the San Diego Padres, all for the same reason—I was between 10 and 12 years old and had a bedtime.

You probably have those moments, too, because it is impossible to know when magic is going to strike. Not every game is memorable, but sometimes, you find magic in a bottle. Like last season, when Tommy Pham hit a walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays and capped it off with one of the greatest corny-cool interview lines in baseball history.

Or when Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell ran into the Busch Stadium stands, knocked the nachos out of a fan’s hands, and the Cardinals and Cubs got into a bizarre but ultimately good-natured public relations bidding war to feed the fan.

Or, to go back to 2016, when Matt Adams hit a walk-off home run against Bud Norris to end the kind of sixteen inning game which should be required by law to only occur on pleasant, relaxing Friday nights which you hope can last a little bit longer and which, thanks to the mere existence of baseball, do.

Matt Adams, the hero of the above clip, is now on the Washington Nationals, and Bud Norris, the Fun Police Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who surrendered the home run and subsequent bat flip, is now on the Cardinals. Adams grew up in Philipsburg, in central Pennsylvania, far removed from the unofficial geographic region known as Cardinals Nation. Norris grew up near San Francisco and not only wasn’t a Dodgers fan growing up, he was a fan of their biggest rival, the Giants.

Neither Adams nor Norris had lifelong connections to their respective teams, nor do they have them to their current teams. Hitting a walk-off home run surely meant something to Matt Adams, but it won’t mean anything to members of the 2038 Cardinals, who will have been in diapers, or even the 2025 Cardinals who were not in the Cardinals organization at the time nor Cardinals fans (which is to say, most of them). But these moments will matter to me and you.

In his terrific 2010 book Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball, Will Leitch notes the (now out-of-date) fact that in his lifetime, the Cardinals have had three owners, seven general managers, and eight (now nine) managers. He then notes, “These men can go somewhere else: (Walt) Jocketty can head to Cincinnati, (Joe) Torre can become a legend in New York. We have no such options. We’re not going anywhere.”

Leitch also writes annually about the players who have stayed with their current team the longest. The three players with the most games played for their current teams all debuted in 2004—New York Mets third baseman David Wright (who hasn’t played in a game since May 2016 but is technically active), Minnesota Twins catcher-turned-first baseman Joe Mauer, and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who tops the list. The longest tenured MLB manager, Mike Scioscia, became the manager of the Anaheim Angels in 2000.

If, like me, you remember baseball before 2000—the entirety of the public face of the sport has turned over before your eyes. Every player is different. Every manager is different. You’re still there. The sport belongs to you. As a fan, you have a permanent role—it may not pay as well, but it will always be there, and it will last as long as you want it.

There are two types of baseball writers—those who follow other sports and those who do not, and I am squarely in the former category. And as much as I love postseason baseball, I will readily admit that once it reaches that level of stakes, drama is drama for me. Do-or-die elimination games in pro and college football as well as college basketball, the NBA’s night-in-night-out collection of dynamic personalities, and the torturous agony of playoff hockey are fantastic. But regular season baseball games can be what you want them to be. They can be the sole focus of your attention, or they can be background noise at a barbecue or on a road trip. It’s up to you.

I hope the Cardinals make the postseason this year. But whether they do or not, we’ll get 162 of these things. We probably won’t watch all of them, but they’ll be there. And just knowing that is comforting.