Nothing can touch the optimism of Opening Day. All 30 teams have a chance; all Major League ballclubs are equal for at least a day. On that first day of the baseball year, the Cubs have the same record as the Cardinals and the Devil Rays are even with the Yankees. On Opening Day, it's everybody's year, but this was my year to see the first National League pitch of the 2002 season for myself.
Usually, I'm on my couch for the festivities, watching safely from the comfort of my own home. This year was going to be different; I was going to actively participate. So having secured an $8 ticket along with a few friends at Turner Field for Atlanta's opener against Philadelphia, I was set. I was excited with the prospect of ringing in the baseball new year live and in person. Of course, little did we know that 51,634 other people had that same idea.
But we were confident, already in Atlanta a full hour before the magical first pitch of the 2002 season. Then we hit traffic. For 45 minutes. But we could still make it.
Then we had to park. Then we had to walk. No more delusions of seeing the first pitch. What we saw instead was fireworks from the giant Coke bottle atop Turner Field from the other side of I-75, reminding us of what we missed.
We finally got inside the outer gates of the park in the first inning, chuckling at all kinds of poor saps in the ticket line. In a moment of fatal hubris, we congratulated ourselves for having had the foresight to order tickets before hand, unlike the Maryland and Indiana fans at the park. For me this wasn't some diversion before the NCAA championship; this was baseball. Somehow it was fitting that they were the ones in line. But then we were hit by an almighty touch of cosmic sarcasm. Then we hit the will call window.
See the pattern? Lines - both of cars and people. Waiting. No baseball.
Our line was at least 15 feet longer than all the others, at which point I began chastising my friend for having a last name that begins with 'H.' Forty-five minutes later, tickets in hand we got inside the stadium - in the bottom of the fourth inning.
By the time we got to our seats, the Braves were up 4-0. For all intents and purposes the game was over. But this was Opening Day, time to persevere.
So we finally sat down, nearly an hour and a half after the first pitch. But not to worry. While the action between the lines is always the main draw for me, I spent the fourth and fifth innings engaging in my second-favorite baseball related activity - talking. My best friend from my days at Furman drove down for the day and we spent the better half of two innings catching up on everything related to the wide world of sports. There's something about a baseball stadium that makes even the most banal conversations seem like the Gettysburg Address. Slowly the frustration of missing the first pitch melted away.
But glancing at my hands, I knew something was missing. My right hand, which is my beer hand, was empty. Something had to be done. No beer vendors were in sight, so I decided to take action. I hit what had to be the beer line that time forgot. It was a black hole. Nothing but bitter patrons. But it was here that I got to engage in my third-favorite ballpark activity - girl watching.
An inning and 45 minutes later, I was in a state of baseball Nirvana. A frosty, $7 beverage in one hand, and some roasted peanuts in the other, I found the feeling I drove to Atlanta in search of, just in time for the seventh-inning stretch.
Finally, after much toil, I found myself in the warm Georgia sun, cracking peanuts, sitting with my bare feet on the seat in front of me, soaking it all up. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the feeling that, at least for an inning and a half, all was right with the world.