Few people celebrate the second day of the baseball season. Opening Day is flooded with remembrances and celebrations, reveries about spring and fathers and the timelessness of the game. Opening Day sparks packed stadiums, filled with color and pageantry and grass that is jarringly green and familiar scents and children pulled from school. And scorecards! How many people keep score on Opening Day? Everybody, it seems, and the scorecards are crisp and they are neat, every line drawn with care, every home run filled in with the precision of the SAT Test circles. Opening Day brings out the overwrought poet in baseball fans everywhere. By Day 2, though, the poetry ends. It's a long season, and the second day is when baseball fans begin to settle in.
I suppose this gets to the heart of things. Opening Day is about hope ... beautiful, glorious and irrational hope. And second days are about the slow and irretrievable loss of that hope. Opening Day is about being young. And Day 2 is about getting old. Stadiums in many places are now half-filled ... no child gets to skip school to catch the SECOND game of the season. The lifers remain. Scorecards are creased and smeared and abandoned by the fourth inning. The drumbeat sounds. The long march of the season begins. The three-hit first day, in the slow and sure way of inevitability, morphs into that .263 batting that was preordained by the martial law of 600 plate appearances. The flawed teams begin their steady descent into the standings.
I'm a big fan of irrational hope. Every year, when I was columnist at The Kansas City Star, I would write a column about why the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. It was homage to an old Kansas City humor columnist who every year would pick the Kansas City Athletics to win the pennant. Neither of us ever got it right, of course. It was homage to Opening Day and limitless possibilities and that irrational hope that Opening Day inspires.
And then Opening Day passes, and it's Day 2, and what's left then?
You know who used to love the second day of the baseball season? Buck O'Neil. Today's a good day to remember my old friend. You have, I suspect, heard Buck's story about the three times in his life when he heard a sound unlike anything else he ever heard. Still, it's worth telling again because it takes us through his life.
The first time he heard the sound, he was just a kid in Sarasota, and he was standing behind the outfield wall in the hope of getting a few baseballs being hit by the Yankees in batting practice. He suddenly heard a booming sound -- like a cannon being fired, he would sometimes say -- and he climbed to the top of the wall to see. And there he saw Babe Ruth in the batter's box.
The second time he heard the sound, he was a young first baseman for the Kansas City Monarch of the Negro Leagues. He would become a fine player, a good defensive first baseman, a batting champion. He would always say he was getting dressed when he heard that sound again, the boom that sounded like Babe Ruth, and he raced outside to take a look. And there he saw Josh Gibson in the batter's box.
The third time he heard the sound, he was a longtime scout, one of the most respected in baseball. He had already lived a full baseball life. He had managed the Monarchs. He had been the first black coach in baseball history. He had played a huge role as a scout or an advisor or simply a friend for Ernie Banks and Lou Brock and Billy Williams and Bob Gibson and Joe Carter and too many others to count. This time he was out at the ballpark to watch a player people were already calling the most remarkable physical talent in the history of baseball. Buck O'Neil watched him crush an impossibly long home run the first time he swung the bat. And, yes, that sound boomed again. That was Bo Jackson.
Buck used to say he would go out to the ballpark every day because he wanted to hear that sound one more time before he died. He never did, or at least he never said that he did. But he heard a lot of pretty great sounds. He saw a lot of pretty great things. That's the wonder of Day 2. Hope might fade. But you never know what you're going to hear.
But that's not the Buck O'Neil story I'm thinking about now. No. Bill James has a favorite Buck O'Neil story that fits Day 2. I happened to be there when Bill's story happened. I had set up a baseball panel discussion at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Bill James was there, New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro was there -- the second co-host for the Poscast, incidentally -- and former Kansas City Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson was there. I was the moderator. The conversation bounced around many different topics, but no Kansas City baseball conversation is complete without at least a mention of the New York Yankees and their dominance.
The Yankees have long been something of an obsession for Kansas City baseball fans. This goes back 70 or 80 years. The Kansas City Blues were for many years a New York farm team -- in many ways the Blues were THE New York farm team. It was in Kansas City that Mutt Mantle threatened to take his son Mickey back to the mines in Oklahoma because he was not handling himself like a man. It was in Kansas City that Walter Cronkite, as he long remembered, used to catch Blues games featuring players like Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Priddy and Frenchy Bordagaray and then long after, late at night, play games of drunken hopscotch with the boys from the wire services. The Blues and Yankees were inextricably knotted together; Kansas City was Yankees territory.
When the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the idea was that Kansas City would become its own territory. But that did not exactly happen. The early A's, for various reasons, sort of continued to be a Yankees farm team. The A's did not develop or acquire too many good players in the early years, but those few who did blossom tended to find themselves wearing Yankees uniforms before too long. The most famous of these was Roger Maris, but the list of useful players the Yankees took from the A's is actually quite long, and this did not really change until Charlie O. Finley bought the team and began his zany reign.
Finley had his own Yankees quirks. For instance, he was told at one point that the real secret to the Yankees success was Yankee Stadium. So, naturally, he tried to retrofit Municipal Stadium in Kansas City so that its dimensions were precisely the same as Yankee Stadium. This did not work on any level, including the most basic "architectural level," and the A's continued to stink until Finley finally convinced baseball to let him move the team to the untapped market of Oakland. People in Kansas City have no fondness for Finley. But they will generally concede that he did not kowtow to the Yankees.
Then the Royals came to town, and from 1976 to 1980 they had a rivalry with the Yankees that matches anything in baseball history. Four times in five years, they faced each other in best-of-five playoff series to determine the American League pennant. "I hated the Yankees," George Brett said. "I mean that sincerely. I HATED those guys." One series ended on the famous home run of Yankee Chris Chambliss. Another ended with Kansas City's Fred Patek in the dugout, his face red with tears. The only Royals victory of the four was clinched when Brett turned on a neck-high fastball from Goose Gossage. There were fights, there were titanic performances, there were famous moments like when Cliff Johnson threatened to fight Kansas City's spiritual leader Hal McRae before one game, to which McRae replied: "I don't fight extra men."
Around 1994, the Yankees took on a new and sinister meaning in Kansas City -- they came to represent the monetary unfairness of the game. This was probably always true, but the numbers had grown more stark, and the Royals were at the bottom of the starkness. More and more, Kansas City baseball fans felt like poker players with a perpetually short stack of chips. "How can we compete?" Royals fans shouted while management traded away Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran and anyone else who was deemed too expensive. The answer seemed to be: "You can't." The Yankees, meanwhile, seemed to buy whatever player they wanted.
So that's what we were talking about on the panel -- the Royals utter inability to compete with the Yankees -- when suddenly Buck O'Neil raised his hand. He was in the crowd, and he stood up, and here's what he said: "OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees." Everybody in the room stopped, because that's what Buck's voice did to a room. I don't have his words memorized, but he said something like this:
"OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees. It's not even a question. The Yankees can only play nine players at a time. They can't sign all the good players out there and play them. They can't use more than one pitcher at a time. They can't play two shortstops or three center fielders. They have nine guys, we have nine guys. They might be able to get nine more expensive guys, but that doesn't mean they get nine BETTER guys.
"Baseball is the fairest game in the world. It doesn't matter if the other guy is bigger than you or taller than you or stronger than you or faster than you. The only thing that matters is who plays the game better. I'm sick of excuses. People say we can't beat the Yankees. That's ridiculous. We beat the Yankees before when we had players like George Brett and Frank White and Amos Otis and Willie Wilson and Hal McRae. Yeah. We just need to find the players and develop them into good players. If we don't do that, it's not the Yankees fault."
This might not quite as good if you can't hear Buck O'Neil's voice saying it. But it had a mesmerizing effect on the room ... as I say, Bill James will never forget it. Buck was the most optimistic man I ever met. To him baseball wasn't about the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day. It was not about irrational hopes that this player might have a career year or that player might suddenly reach his potential or any of that. For Buck, the baseball season about Day 2 and beyond, and no excuses, and his heartfelt belief that if you put nine good men on the field you could beat anybody. Baseball is the one game where the really bad teams win 40% of the time. Baseball is the one game where the very best teams will lose 60 times a year. Sure, over long seasons, good teams tend to be good, and bad teams tend to be bad, but that doesn't make it predestined.
"We could win it all this year," Buck would say, and he would say it long after Opening Day.
To borrow another man's words, Buck never thought there was anything irrational about hope.