Before he lost his air of invincibility — before he became a convicted rapist and then, ultimately, a side show — Mike Tyson was a greatly feared boxer. Whether it was because of his fierce style, the historic weakness of the post-Larry Holmes heavyweight division or some combination of the two, no one had an answer for him for the first four years of his career. He was simply unstoppable.
Back when Tyson was unstoppable, his opponents were invariably asked what they’d do against him. What they would do that the guy who was knocked senseless by Tyson a couple of months before did not do. They all had different answers.
Some said they’d use a lot of lateral movement. Some said they’d keep him at bay with jabs. Some said they’d get on their bike and use the whole ring in an effort to tire him out. Some said they’d tie him up. It never worked. At least it never worked until an out-of-shape and ill-prepared Tyson got knocked the hell out by Columbus, Ohio’s own Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990, but that’s another story.
One time, when Tyson was still invincible, someone asked him about his opponents’ strategies and how he intended to counter them. In response, he gave what is probably his most famous quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I was never much of a Tyson fan, but my God, I love that quote. It’s a far better version of that old 19th century Prussian general’s “no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy” comment. Pithier. More visceral. If you’re organizing an army, go with Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. If you want to tell someone they’re just gonna get smashed, go with Tyson. Either way, there is some serious friggin’ wisdom in those words. And Tyson’s words always come to mind for me on Opening Day.
Opening Day follows spring training which, in turn, follows the hot stove season and if those three things have anything in common, it’s optimism. Almost every team, and almost every fan of almost every team, convinces themselves between November and March that things are gonna be better than they were last season. If things were OK last season — and if they picked up a good player or two over the winter — they convince themselves that things will be great. If a top prospect is ready to contribute too, Katy bar the door, buy the jerseys and start stashing cash for the postseason tickets.
Then Opening Day comes, their starter gets shelled, their bullpen gets exposed and the heart of their order goes 1-for-11 with five strikeouts. Even if they know better — even if they know the season is 162 games long and one day doesn’t mean a thing — a lot of people reach for the panic button by around beer-thirty on Opening Day.
And I love it. I freakin’ love it.
Don’t get me wrong: that optimism is a good thing at first. It’s a nice way to transition from winter to spring. But I’d much rather see teams and fans deal with the reality of their roster and talent than play the “if everything breaks right” game. I’d rather they all gird themselves for the long, wonderful slog that is the regular season than get totally jacked up like they do for Opening Day. I love Opening Day, but as I’ve noted many, many times, the appeal of baseball comes not from its big events — especially its one-off events — but from its everyday nature. From the notion that no one game matters that much even if all the games, as they form the soundtrack to my spring, summer and early fall, matter more than anything. There’s bliss to be found in any one baseball moment, but the good stuff is all the baseball moments, taken in manageable doses with a decent amount of reality and self-awareness about it all, in the aggregate.
This evening, by roughly 10:30PM, there will be 15 teams and 15 fan bases that got punched in the mouth. By the end of the weekend, some of them will have been punched in the mouth a few times. They’ll know that their “two legit starters and some alleged depth” is not a plan for a pitching staff. They’ll know that the 15,000 words written about Joe Shlabotnik’s offseason workout regimen and new approach has done absolutely nothing to help him lay off breaking crap in the dirt. They’ll know that all the slogans and images spit out by the wannabe Don Drapers in the marketing department and all the faux-brainy cloudspeak spit out by the wannabe Steve Jobs in the baseball operations department aren’t any match for not having a stronger roster than the one we tricked ourselves into believing in back in mid-February. Reality will begin to creep in and we’ll begin adjusting ourselves to what the baseball season is as opposed to what we erroneously convince ourselves it will be when we’re staring out of our windows all winter long, waiting for spring.
Opening Day is glorious. Not because of what it means for its own sake. But for that punch in the mouth that snaps us all back to the highs, lows and day-to-day ins and outs of glorious baseball reality.