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Opening Day

For most of my life, today has always been Opening Day. Not until I started going to school at UF did I also think of today as the end of college basketball season. I always looked at college basketball as the schedule filler between college football (my second favorite sport) and baseball (my favorite). You'll have to excuse me if I am more worried about the Rays (my community ball club) and the Yankees (my ancestral ball club) than Michigan State or UNC.

Despite baseball's assorted scandals (gambling, segregation, player-owner issues, steroids), Opening Day is always a chance at rebirth. At it's best, baseball ebbs and flows, carrying you through the spring and summer, sending you into fall with a championship or optimism for next year. At it's worst, it will break your heart, only to call you back with The Next Can't Miss Kid.

Sports can provide a lift to a community or to an individual. For a lot of us, the Gators' march to the National Championship last year saved what was a terrible 2008. Job losses and shrinking bank accounts hurt less when Tim Tebow is hurting others. But, football is a four hour heart attack 14 weeks a year. Baseball is 162 days, when a loss means a chance at redemption tomorrow. Baseball is a lot easier on your blood pressure, unless it's October.

The great baseball authors write how baseball provides an outlet to escape from the world beyond the walls of the ball park. Twice in my life this has been true; the 2005 Gator Baseball team and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. No matter what may be going on with your grades, your girlfriend/wife or your job, there are nine guys ready to play for you every day. Sometimes, you'll bring your girl to the park, but baseball is just as enjoyable alone with a scorecard and sunflower seeds.

I won't make the case that baseball is better than any other sport, but I think baseball offers more of a connection between the fan and player. I've met Roy Halladay and Frank Thomas. I've been at dinner when half the Yankees, a season after winning their fourth World Series in five years, ate next to us at a resturant in Tampa. The only autograph Derek Jeter gave out was to my four year old sister. Everyone else got a wave and a smile. When I covered Gator baseball, I was on a first name basis with Matt LaPorta and Gavin Dickey. I also got to visit with Carl Crawford and David Price 12 hours after the Rays defeated the Red Sox to win the American League Pennant. You see those guys every day on TV, their faces only obscured by the same cap you can purchase for $30 at any sporting goods store. You feel like they are friends of yours. Meanwhile, aside from Tim Tebow and a few others, football players are relatively anonymous. That leads to some people thinking any big guy must play football.

There is also the individuality of baseball. Americans value teamwork, but we also value personalities. In baseball, you can yell out and speak to the left fielder, for better or worse, and see his reaction. In football, the only reaction you get is the quarterback waving his arms to ask fans to quiet down. The individual is frowned upon in football because each player is a gear in the machine. Baseball relies on the individual, from the diving catch to the closer getting three outs in the ninth. Baseball is a series of one-on-one battles; pitcher-batter, batter-fielder, fielder-base runner. Football is unit vs. unit, treating the one-on-one as part of a larger strategy. That isn't to say one is better than the other. But, I've yet to see a baseball team penalized for celebrating a home run.

There will not be a day like today until the end of August, when college football starts. Make sure you have fun. Welcome To Opening Day.