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Opening Day 2005


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Monday, April 4, 2005

Fans all agree: 'There's nothing like Opening Day'

Memories make Findlay parade, first pitch special

By Howard Wilkinson

Enquirer staff writer

Major League baseball is played in cities nationwide and, in any given year, half of the teams will begin the 162-game marathon in their home ballparks.

But nowhere else but Cincinnati is Opening Day an occasion when bosses look the other way as workers slip off to the ballpark, teachers expect some empty desks in their classrooms, and elephants, draught horses and hundreds of people parade through Over-the-Rhine and downtown to celebrate the return of baseball.

New Orleans has its Mardi Gras, New York City its Macy's parade. Cincinnati has Opening Day.

"Whether you are a fan or a player, there is nothing like it," said 68-year-old Jim O'Toole, who, in the 1960s, took the mound as a left-handed Reds pitcher on four Opening Days. "If you're from Cincinnati and you love baseball, it's what you live for."

The phenomenon of Opening Day is about the game of baseball, of course, and the long history of the Cincinnati game. It's a game that stretches back to when the Red Stockings, the first professional team, took the field in 1869 on the grass of the Union Grounds, now the parking lot and plaza of the Museum Center at Union Terminal.

Baseball is a game well-suited to making memories.

For O'Toole, it revisits the 45-year-old memory of being a 22-year-old pitcher with the Reds and getting the call from manager Fred Hutchinson to come in from the bullpen in the third inning.

He remembers loping out to the mound in the center of old Crosley Field, his team down 4-0, and seeing 30,075 fans watching him from the stands, hoping he could stop the bleeding.

For Jeff Wehmeier, it is the chance to, once again, don the heavy flannel Reds uniform worn more than 50 years ago by his late father, pitcher Herm Wehmeier, and march in the Findlay Market Parade as a tribute to the man who would have been his hero whether he had been a big league ballplayer or not.

For Linda Edwards of Forest Park, this Opening Day will remind her of one 25 years ago, when she stood on the Astroturf of Riverfront Stadium and watched the smile on the face of her then 5-year-old son, Jason, the March of Dimes poster child, as he tossed the first pitch to Reds catcher Johnny Bench.

The memories Opening Day has made for generations of Cincinnatians and the uniqueness of the spring celebration is nowhere more evident than in the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum.

When archivists, baseball historians and club officials sat down to design the Reds museum, the decision was made to devote one of the nine galleries to Opening Day.

"No other franchise in baseball would have done that," said Greg Rhodes, the museum's executive director and co-author of a book on Cincinnati's Opening Day.

"Some people suggested starting off with a gallery on spring training, but that didn't get very far," said Rhodes. "Every team has spring training. But the celebration Cincinnati has every year is unique. You couldn't tell the story of the Reds without telling the story of Opening Day."

Nowhere but here

Baseball fans from other big-league cities sometimes have a hard time understanding the Cincinnati Opening Day phenomenon.

Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell said that, when he was in San Francisco recently for a conference, he got into a conversation in a restaurant with a truck driver and Twins fan from Minnesota who was vacationing in California.

"He said he listened to WLW a lot in his truck and was hearing them talk a lot about Opening Day," Tarbell said.

"He asked me, 'What's up with this Opening Day parade?' All I could say was, you have to be from Cincinnati to understand it."

Tarbell understands it. For years, he has dressed in a black swallow-tail coat and stovepipe hat and marched in the Findlay Market parade as the man he calls his "hero" - Peanut Jim Shelton, who, for decades, wheeled a cart up to the Findlay Street side of Crosley Field and sold roasted peanuts to fans.

"The parade is the rite of spring for me," Tarbell said. "My life wouldn't be the same if I couldn't play Peanut Jim one day a year."

'I march for him'

Wehmeier always marches alongside "Peanut Jim" Tarbell in the Findlay Market Parade, wearing his father's Reds uniform. Wehmeier was born in 1953; his father's eight-year run with the Reds ended the following year when he was traded to the Phillies.

Jeff Wehmeier never went to Crosley Field to watch his father's Reds teams take the field on Opening Day.

But it has been and always will be a special day to him, a chance to honor the memory of his father, who died of a heart attack at age 46.

"I march for him," Wehmeier said. "The old guys from the West Side who see me in the uniform; they remember my dad. The young kids like it because they like the 'retro' look. But I do it for him."

Family celebration

Four years after Herm Wehmeier left the Reds, Chicago native O'Toole made his debut. He stuck with the Reds through 1966, becoming one of the top left-handed starters in the National League, before rounding out his career in 1967 with the White Sox.

When his career ended, O'Toole stayed in Cincinnati. He and his wife Betty raised 11 children at their homes in Mount Washington and Anderson Township. Today, the 31st grandchild is on the way.

Every Opening Day since he retired from baseball, the O'Toole clan has held its own "parade" - a parade of dozens of children and grandchildren to the ballpark.

"The last few years, I've been getting 50 Opening Day tickets to bring the whole family down to the ballpark," O'Toole said. "This year, I had to up it to 60, there are so many of us."

Exciting times

Linda Edwards' family is nowhere near the size of the O'Toole clan, but for her husband Tom, 30-year-old son Jason and 24-year-old daughter Courtney, Opening Day is a family event.

Edwards wasn't much of a baseball fan until the early 1970s, when her future husband started taking her to Riverfront Stadium. It was during the days of the Big Red Machine, when there were names like Rose, Bench, Perez and Morgan in the lineup every day.

"Those were exciting times to become a baseball fan," Edwards said. "The Reds were so good. ... You couldn't help but get caught up in it."

Today, the whole family marches with the Rosie Reds in the Findlay Market Parade.

But it was Opening Day 1980, when her son, Jason, born with spina bifida, threw out the first pitch as the Cincinnati area's March of Dimes poster child, that cemented her love for the game.

Jason is still a huge baseball fan. His mother sees the same spark in his eyes when the family talks baseball now that she saw all those years ago, when her little boy in leg braces smiled up at grown men in Reds uniforms.

"The memory of that day is always with me," Edwards said. "Especially on Opening Day. How could I not love that day?"

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To bad the Army doesn't look at Cincinnati's Opening Day the way Cincinnatians do... I took an extended lunch to watch the first few innings and got my a$$ handed to me when I got back. Oh well, wasn't the first time, won't be the last and I got to see Dunn's first MONSTER homerun, so it was worth it !!!


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talk to me after the allstar break. last year we saw alot of promise...look what it got us.

No s**t. The wheels just fell the f**k off after the All Star break. I couldn't believe the change. It was like from night to day. :(

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