For openers, 2018 schedule very unique

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Matt Rothenberg

“You have to start somewhere.” – Eric Davis, Cincinnati Reds, 1990

Indeed…and what better a start than Opening Day?

Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds, even if they are no longer the first team to play in the new season, has meant the Findlay Market Parade and all the grand festivities that go along with it. However, because of the 1990 work stoppage that crept from Spring Training into the regular season, the Reds found themselves in unfamiliar territory, and – as Davis alluded to – they were opening at night on April 9, in Houston’s Astrodome.

It all worked out for the Reds in 1990, as they would capture the World Series, but baseball’s Opening Day has had its share of oddities that would be expected to go with a nearly 150-year-old institution.

And as it did for so many years, you could start in Cincinnati.

The Reds franchise, since it started as a member of the American Association in 1882, has traditionally hosted the first game of the major league schedule. Sometimes this has occurred the same day as other teams have played, and sometimes this has happened the day prior to other teams starting.

Only four times since 1882 has Cincinnati opened the season on the road, by far the fewest times for a franchise that has been around as long as the Reds. Twice (1885 and 1888) it was scheduled as such; once (1990) due to a lockout which pushed the schedule back; and once (1966) because of rain which washed out a two-game series with the Mets, forcing the Reds to play their first game in Philadelphia.

Cincinnati fans will surely fill Great American Ball Park on Thursday, March 29, when the Reds take on the Washington Nationals. In fact, 14 other parks are going to ring in the new season as all 30 major league squads will be in action. This will mark the first time in 50 years that all teams will play on the first day of the baseball season. On April 10, 1968, all 20 teams played their season lid-lifter. It used to be a more common occurrence in the first half of the 20th century, as it happened 19 times between 1900 and 1956.

Something else that is just as rare over the past 60 years is a Thursday start to the schedule. Since the 1871 start of the National Association, the first game has been played on a Thursday 25 times. This is only the sixth time it has happened since 1958.

Monday (44) and Tuesday (31) remain the most popular days to have the season opener. Friday (3) is the least popular, and no season has started on a Friday since 1905.

Scheduling quirks have also had to work their way around work stoppages. Though it was not uncommon in the late 1800s to have seasons starting in May, the latest season opener in recent memory occurred in 1995, as the players’ strike lingered into Spring Training. Faced with the prospect of replacement players actually playing regular season games, the two sides hammered out an agreement and the season began on April 25, three weeks after its scheduled start. A players’ strike in 1972 likewise pushed back the start of the season, but not quite as far. The owners locked out the players in 1990, causing the regular season to be delayed for a week.

The 1990 Cincinnati Reds, pictured above, would go on to win the World Series title that year. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Instead of being pushed forward, over the past 25 years the MLB schedule has seen itself being pushed back into March. This year will mark the 12th time the first game of the season occurs before April. With the insertion of the Divisional Series and Wild Card Games into the postseason lineup, it is hoped that by beginning the season in March – or as early as possible in April – Major League Baseball could avoid playing World Series games in November.

As Major League Baseball continues to market itself outside the United States and Canada, some of those March starts represent instances where teams have begun playing overseas. March 22, 2014, when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played in Sydney, Australia, is the earliest season opener. Many of the remaining major league teams opened on March 31. Other times, teams opening the season in Japan have had an advance opener.

Television has also had an impact on Opening Day. Before 1994, never had the major league schedule opened on a Sunday. ESPN and its Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts then entered the equation, featuring the Reds and Cardinals from Cincinnati on April 3, 1994, Easter night. This was much to the consternation of Reds owner Marge Schott, who preferred to treat Monday’s game as the true opener.

ESPN used the defending World Series champions in Sunday’s opening night match-up six times between 2003 and 2010. When the 2016 schedule was released toward the end of the 2015 regular season, the Sunday night matchups were temporarily omitted. As it turned out, the Mets and Royals were to open the season together on Monday, April 4. When the Mets and Royals ended the 2015 season together in the World Series, it only made sense to shift that 2016 opener to Sunday night. This was the first time that Opening Day featured a rematch of the previous season’s World Series.

Opening Day has its fair share of traditions throughout the baseball world. Like anything else, though, there are some times when deviations must be made from the normal or expected. As always, however, Opening Day will remain the day when all teams start with the same record, leaving the next seven months to weave together another season full of moments and memories.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series