CINCINNATI — Opening day in Cincinnati is about much more than baseball.
It's a holiday that dates to the late 19th century that's celebrated with a colorful, eclectic parade that winds through downtown and elaborate pregame ceremonies on the field.
Bars open early. And tens of thousands of people – with or without game tickets – flock to street parties, participate in tailgating gatherings and line up in parks at sizzling grills for blackened hot dogs with spicy brown mustard while local rock bands play.
Many downtown offices lay out buffets and turn the game on big-screen TV's for employees, and there's usually an amnesty for truant students and workers who make suspicious sick day requests.
"Opening day in Cincinnati is completely unlike anything else in baseball," said Marty Brennaman, who on Monday will call his 40th consecutive opening day as the Reds' radio play-by-play broadcaster. "That is an absolute, unequivocal fact."
Contrary to popular local belief, the Reds' season opener at home every year didn't start as an official baseball scheduling rule because of Cincinnati's history as home of the first professional baseball team (the Red Stockings in 1869). Instead, it's because Cincinnati was one of the southernmost baseball cities at the time and usually offered more favorable weather than northeast cities.
"It was a quirk of the schedule in the beginning, but the fans embraced it and turned it into a community festival," said historian Greg Rhodes, who wrote the 2004 book, "Opening Day: Celebrating Cincinnati's Baseball Holiday" with Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter John Erardi.
The team began in the 1880s greeting first-game fans with pregame concerts, cages full of warbling canaries, and bunting and banners hanging around the stadium. Rhodes credits a promotion-minded Reds business manager, Frank Bancroft, with developing opening day as an annual celebration in the 1890s.
By the turn of the century, Rhodes said, downtown shops began closing and kids skipped school, and The Enquirer wrote tongue-in-cheek laments about the onslaught of illnesses striking the city's grandmothers that forced so many people to leave work early.
Fans groups formed parades, eventually joining into the single Findlay Market Parade that features politicians, local celebrities, military heroes and Reds players past and present in a procession of convertibles, horse-drawn carriages and floats. The parade also features a city leader who dresses in top hat and tails in tribute to a beloved peanut vendor who died decades ago.
At the stadium, there are giveaways, musical performances, ceremonies that can be solemn or festive, patriotic flag formations, and roaring military plane fly-overs.
During the game, the scoreboard will list the fans with the longest consecutive number of opening days attended. It starts at 66 years.
Fans are excited that baseball is back and look forward to a spring and summer of watching games in the scenic riverfront Great American Ball Park, following the team on TV, or sitting in the backyard listening to Brennaman and his colleagues, who now include his son Thom.
"More than anything else, it's the start of spring; just the excitement that baseball is back and summer is coming," said Dan Prickel, an accountant who will be at his 41st opening day game Monday.
Prickel's personal tradition began like a scene from "American Graffiti," with a group of Batesville, Ind., area childhood friends – ready to scatter to colleges and jobs at summer's end after high school – making a pact to reunite each year for opening day. About a dozen were there for the first one; there are three who have returned every year.
There has been no shortage of memorable games – in Brennaman's first opener in 1974, he called Hank Aaron's record-tying 714th career home run in the first inning and a Reds rally for an extra-inning victory. There's also the 2011 game-ending, three-run home run by Ramon Hernandez for a 7-6 Reds comeback.
The pregame activities are memorable, too. In 2006, President George W. Bush, wearing a Reds jacket, showed impressive form with a ceremonial first pitch he acknowledged he had been practicing for. The next year, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory made an awkwardly bad attempt, which became an Internet sensation and landed the mayor on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" TV show to relive it. Reds outfielder Josh Hamilton got a prolonged ovation during pregame introductions in 2007 to hail his battle back from substance addictions; he returns Monday in a Los Angeles Angels uniform.
Rhodes said the late Reds owner Marge Schott was one of the most ardent proponents of the opening day celebration, but had a run of unfortunate events that included the 1996 collapse of home plate umpire John McSherry seven pitches into the game. She vigorously complained about the decision to postpone the game, despite McSherry's death that day.
In 1994, she belittled the Reds' scheduled Sunday night opening game, complaining that opening day games should be in daytime. She declared the next afternoon's game the real opening day, complete with daylong festivities and two elephants and her St. Bernard dogs on the field before the game.
It's rare that opening day doesn't bring some kind of surprise to add to its lore.
"I just don't think it is something that you could have mapped out or planned," Rhodes said. "Now you've got generations and generations of fans who have been part of it. It is just a testament to this town's love of its baseball team."
Contact Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell