Commentary: Opening Day brings hope

I believe it was Orioles manager Buck Showalter who said, "Hope springs eternal."

OK, he didn't say it first.

But he said it Friday at Camden Yards, on Opening Day, the most hopeful day of the year every year. The day when, as Showalter put it, everyone is thinking about best-case scenarios.

He was talking just before noon of a sunny, finally warm day, with Opening Day seemingly doing what last month's official start to spring could not - bringing this endless winter to an end.

It also allowed us to focus on something in sports other than an NCAA tournament that has been almost unfailingly disappointing.

Never had I turned off tournament games to watch the, gulp, NBA.

Until this year.

I can take only so many defense-dominated, slow-paced slugfests in which the teams can't run an offense, can't shoot and can't break down defenders. When you get to the regional finals, you ought to have players who can score 40 points in a game. In Marquette, you had an entire team that couldn't get to 40. I saw more spectacular passes, acrobatic drives and swished jumpers from Kobe Bryant in one half this week than I saw in four rounds of March Madness.

Big-time college basketball was already in critical condition, of course, before this uninspiring tourney. Parity, once thought to be a good thing in sports, has robbed fans of the dominant teams like UCLA or Indiana or Georgetown or Duke from previous generations that evoked passion. Love 'em or hate 'em, you cared about them. Can you say the same about Wichita State?

And you knew their players. You don't anymore.

All the marquee programs lose their top stars to the NBA on an annual basis. (And even non-marquee teams lose their above-average players early - yes, Maryland and Alex Len, that was directed at you.) In a different era, Kentucky might not have lost a game all season, successfully defending its national title. But with its best would-be sophomores playing pro ball, Kentucky couldn't even get to the NCAAs. And couldn't even beat Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

Not only don't you know the players on the teams, you don't even know the conference affiliations of most of the teams. Quick, what conference will Final Four squads Louisville and Syracuse be playing in next year? (Hint: Not the one they played in this year and, in Louisville's case, not the one it'll be playing in two years from now). College sports is greatly diminished when longstanding rivalries and traditions are ended as schools make embarrassing money grabs even as they continue to exploit and take advantage of their athletes. You know, the ones fans pay or tune in to see.

By the way, it was difficult to even tell the national semifinals were approaching throughout last week, when we saw a parade of coaches jumping ship on the kids they pledged their allegiance to during the recruiting process, a gruesome injury played on an endless YouTube loop, and, of course, the disturbing footage of Rutgers coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his players. Did anyone in America, save for the ex-Rutgers athletic director, watch that and think, probably a three-game suspension and a fine is plenty of punishment?

It makes you wonder if the sport can even be salvaged.

And then, along comes Opening Day. And even the most negative, cynical and pessimistic among us begin to feel that anything is possible.

There wasn't a person at Camden Yards on Friday who didn't think the Orioles were going to rally and win that game, even when the home team fell behind 4-1 to Minnesota and still trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning. OK, maybe not Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. But everyone else, including the soft-tossers who gave up five runs to Baltimore in the eighth.

You watched Manny Machado lay down that sacrifice bunt and you saw the next 15 years with him at third base and in the middle of the lineup. You watched Adam Jones drive in the tying run and you smiled at how clutch the first real Face of the Franchise since Cal Ripken has become. You watched the scorchingly hot Chris Davis hit his game-winning grand slam and you started to calculate just how many RBIs he might finish this All-Star, no, MVP season with. You even watched the perennially injured Brian Roberts hobble out of the dugout and took Showalter at his word, believing Roberts would be back and healthy and helping the team at some point this season.

And then you flashed on college hoops and you began to believe there are ways to save that sport.

Like requiring the same three-year commitment from athletes baseball and football programs require. Like calling the game by the letter of the law to encourage less physical play and create more space. Like forcing coaches to honor their contracts. Like doing away with the musical conferences nonsense by creating 16-team, geographical superconferences and writing into their bylaws that their composition can't be altered for 20 years.

That's Opening Day for you. The most hopeful day of the year.

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