As March melts into April, spring rituals are everywhere in the air - sort of like pollen.
Birds sing, bees buzz and every blooming thing paints the town a pretty shade of yellow.
Even two-legged critters answer the vernal equinox's call, shedding our winter coats to tan our pale, hairy exteriors. Like snowbirds, some even migrate to warmer climes.
But perhaps the oddest American tradition involves the almost instinctive desire to flock to the ballpark to watch a bunch of grown men throw balls and swing sticks.
Opening Day is a religious holiday for true baseball fans, who make the pilgrimage to Mecca (their ballpark of choice) and even take communion (hot dogs and cold beer).
It's more than just a celebration of the sport. It's a time when hope springs eternal, when your team's past sins are washed away and it is given a clean slate to try again.
A new lineup is introduced, infusing new blood into every club and renewed faith into every fan. The Hope Diamond takes on new meaning for fans of the grand ol' game.
On the flipside, everyone, besides the most diehard homers, likes to kick a team when its down for, say, a century or so. Such is the case of my beloved Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908.
Cursed with the family duty of being a Cubs fan since birth (my grandfather died at the age of 90 without seeing the Cubs win it all), I have made the trek to the Windy City and Wrigley Field on several occasions, but I've never been able to experience Opening Day - the most optimistic day for baseball's most optimistic fans.
I've sat in the outfield with fellow Bleacher Bums, including my future wife, yelled at Sammy Sosa for game information and chanted "Left Field Sucks!" It does, you know.
I've worked in the press box not far from the late, great Harry Caray, whom I watched pound at least a six-pack while providing color commentary for the WGN telecast. There was a poor intern in charge of bringing Caray a cold one every time he uttered the word "Budweiser" on air. And you thought his slurred speech was due to a stroke.
I've frequented the legendary Billy Goat Bar, believed to be the source of the Cubs curse when the team wouldn't allow the owner to bring his goat into a 1945 World Series game. Billy Sianis vowed that the Cubs would never return to the Fall Classic after the team got his goat, and his dire prediction has proven right for the past 65 seasons.
And I've held an annual Opening Day party on my back porch for the past 20 or so years, grilling brats, drinking beers and praying that next year is finally here for the Cubs.
But Opening Day is about more than watching a game; it's an experience for all the senses.
It's the smell of promise and roasted peanuts in the air.
It's the longing to hear the crack of the bat and the call of "Play Ball!"
It's the feeling you get when the home team is introduced for the first time and gives you reason to believe this is THE year.
The Grand Strand got its first taste of Major League Baseball earlier this week when the defending American League champion Texas Rangers, the new parent club for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, visited BB&T Coastal Field for an exhibition game against Coastal Carolina.
But it wasn't the same as actually being at a major league home opener.
Whereas I've never made the pilgrimage to Wrigley for the Cubs' season opener, there are many locals - many of them transplants from big-league cities - that have made - and are gearing up to make - the journey to worship at the altar of their beloved teams for the first game of the season, traveling great distances to get the real Opening Day experience, or rely on memories from the past. Here are their stories:
Yankees of Yesteryear
Charlie Campbell, owner of the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet and a New Jersey native, started going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx at the age of 5 with his uncle.
"He had a big house in Jersey City and he was the biggest Yankees fan," Campbell recalled. "We'd take the train under the Hudson River, then catch the D-Train to the Stadium. I caught two Mickey Mantle home run balls and one from Roger Maris. We played baseball with them. I didn't know they'd be worth a lot of money one day."
Campbell later became a season ticket-holder and saw Reggie Jackson hit three homers in a 1977 World Series game. But his best memory came on Opening Day 1978.
"My wife and I took our boys out of school, they were 8 and 5 at the time, and the look on their faces when they walked in Yankee Stadium for the first time said it all," Campbell recalled. "It was a sunny day in April after a long winter and it was packed. We had great seats, field level, about four rows up from third base. It was electric."
Just as Campbell got to see his boyhood heroes back in the day - Mantle, Maris and DiMaggio - his sons had a ringside seat to the Yankees' greats of the George Steinbrenner era that day - Jackson, Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent. They went on to see many games with their dad, but they can still recall their first taste of baseball.
"We had just signed Catfish Hunter and he threw seven innings of shutout baseball," Campbell recalled. "My boys can tell you everything that happened that day, but all my wife remembers is that (third baseman) Graig Nettles had a nice butt."
Posteriors aside, Campbell agrees with the magic-like feeling of Opening Day at the ballpark, that's been chronicled by many a scribe.
"There's something special about Opening Day. The grass is so green it looks like it was painted on, and the smell of hot dogs in the air. There's no greater place to be than Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, and nothing's better than seeing your kids experience it for the first time.
"I've passed two things on to my sons, and that's the Yankees and Bruce Springsteen."
Wonder which one they call the Boss?
You Down With ODP?
You won't find any Yankees fans in the Opening Day Posse. Quite the contrary.
This group of New England natives was formed to celebrate the Yanks' archrival Boston Red Sox, and the most sacred of Bean Town holidays. The Opening Day Posse has made the 850-mile trek up Interstate 95 from Myrtle Beach to Boston for the past four years - and is mobilizing for another such jaunt next week.
But being down with the ODP involves much more than just a trip to historic Fenway Park to see the Sox's annual home opener. The real attraction is the camaraderie among friends old and new, and some playful antics that have made the trips memorable for members and bystanders alike.
"It sounds kind of crazy to people when you tell it, but it's a blast," said Brandon Bushaw, one of the founding fathers of ODP along with his wife, Cynthia Bushaw. "We wouldn't miss it for the world."
The tradition began five years ago with the Bushaws, who own Island Bar & Grill in Surfside Beach, went back to their native Maine and attended Opening Day with a handful of friends and family members. After having such a good time, the ODP was born.
"Her brother invited us up for Opening Day at Fenway and they asked us to be a part of their wedding party," Brandon Bushaw recalled. "It was such a great weekend that we decided we would do it every year. It's grown over the years with people from Myrtle Beach , Atlanta and other places coming in. It's a great reason to get together."
But there are rules to uphold as a member of the ODP. One member is chosen as the godfather for the weekend and is responsible for purchasing tickets for the entire crew. After serving as godfather for the first time, you are exempt from having to serve the role again, but there are lots of other duties that must be performed with ODP.
All members must partake in a bowl of clam chowder from the Green Dragon Bar, eat a steak sandwich from Joe's and do penalty shots of liquor for committing various party faux pas.
ODP members must time their trips to the Fenway bathroom facilities without missing a run. If the Sox score a run while you're answering nature's call, you have to buy a round of pricey ballpark beers for the group.
And if you think that can get expensive, consider all the extra cost incurred by the crew. In addition to the hundreds they spend on gas, food and lodging, members wear special lanyards and T-shirts identifying themselves as ODP members (the Bushaws splurged to have the lanyards and T-shirts printed up themselves).
Of course, the ODP could save themselves a lot of money and simply gather at the Island Bar & Grill's replica "Green Monster" painted on the establishment's walls and drink their own beer while catching the game on TV, but it's not the same as being there. They get some strange looks from their fellow Fenway denizens, but it's all in fun.
"People are like, 'ODP?' What's that about?' We tell them the story and they get a good laugh about it," said Brandon Bushaw, whose group has documented its trips with postings on social media network sites and photo galleries posted on their bar's walls. "When they hear we're from Myrtle Beach they're like, 'What are you doing up here? I wish I was in Myrtle Beach.' We should get the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor us. We'd put their logo on our T-shirts."
And for the most priceless part of the trip, the Red Sox are hosting the hated Yankees again this season on April 8, when the Fifth annual ODP trip is set to storm Bean Town. A win over the pinstripers makes the trip worth every penny.
"We're 2-0 against the Yankees in Opening Day games we've been to, so hopefully this time it will be 3-0," Brandon Bushaw said. "It's always better when the Sox win, but we know we're going to have a good time no matter what happens in the game."
Opening Day With the O's
Before Scott Brown became the general manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, he grew up getting on-the-job training with the Baltimore Orioles at old Memorial Stadium.
His father served as the media relations director for the Orioles, so the younger Brown could often be found scurrying around the ballpark, especially on Opening Day.
"There were more dental appointment notes to get out of school for Opening Day than any other game," Brown joked. "Opening Day was always a huge deal. There would be Dixieland bands playing and a lot of excitement surrounding the first day of baseball. For me it was like the start of summer. We always seemed to get good weather."
Brown spent a lot of time around his childhood heroes - Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray - but Opening Day brought even bigger names to the ballpark.
"Washington didn't have a franchise then so we had a lot of presidential visits on Opening Day - Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter," Brown recalled. "(Because of the Secret Service) it kept me from sneaking into all the places I was used to going to get cotton candy and snow cones. I needed total access to get to the free stuff."
Between his younger days with the Orioles and his professional days in minor league baseball, Brown estimates he has missed maybe one or two Opening Days since the mid-1970s. Whether enjoying his childhood being around the show or running the show in the minors, Opening Day continues to hold a special place in his heart.
"It's what we work for all winter, so to see it all come together is very rewarding," said Brown, whose Pelicans open their season April 8 at BB&T Coastal Field.
And now, as GM, he can go anywhere in the ballpark he wants.
City of Brotherly Glove
Perhaps no other baseball fans have more cause for optimism this season than the Philadelphia Phillies' phanatics, and Phillies faithful Rick Caines of North Myrtle Beach can't wait for the season to start.
Although he was born here and graduated from Loris High his family hails from West Chester, Pa. and Caines has been attending Phillies games, including five Opening Days, all his life - from the old Veterans Stadium to the new Citizens Bank Park, but never with hopes this high. After acquiring free-agent fireballer Cliff Lee in the offseason, the Phillies now have a starting rotation of pitchers that could each be Opening Day starters for most squads.
"Maybe I'm biased, but I think we definitely have the best pitching staff," Caines said. "I mean, who wouldn't want their fifth starter to be as good as Joe Blanton? The staff will definitely get them to the playoffs."
Forgive Phillies fans for getting a bit ahead of themselves, but they are virtually a unanimous pre-season pick to represent the National League in the World Series. After sitting in the stands through some more pessimistic times, Caines plans to attend as many games in Philly as possible, including Opening Day, plus catch them at other NL ballparks.
"I've been to about five Phillies' Opening Days from the Vet, Citizens Bank Park and other stadiums," Caines said. "I went to the Phillies' Opening Day game last season in Washington. That has to be one of the best, if not the best, I've been to. It's an awesome stadium to visit, plus the President (Obama) threw out the first pitch."
And whether he's physically in the ballpark to witness this possibly magical season first hand or whether he's stranded on the Grand Strand, he doesn't plan to miss a minute of it.
"I always love this time of year ... and I hope to make it to Opening Day," Caines said. "I subscribe to (MLB) Extra Innings so I never miss many Phillies games."
South Side Sox
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Opening Day had a special meaning to Matt Ensworth, assistant general manager for the Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach.
Not only did it mean a trip to Comiskey Park (both old and new) to see his beloved White Sox start the season, it also involved playing hooky from school on an April day.
"Opening Day is always fun, lots of energy, sold-out crowds," he said. "And they were always weekday games, so the best part was being able to get out of school."
As Mark Twain once said, "don't let school interfere with your education." And since Ensworth would go on to a career in America's Pastime, those days were like field trips.
Ensworth's memories include an Opening Day he and White Sox fans would rather forget on April 18, 1991, when new Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field) opened just a long home run away from historic old Comiskey. The South Siders thought they were being punished by the baseball gods in a 16-0 shellacking to the Detroit Tigers.
"Kind of a bad omen for a new stadium," recalled Ensworth, who saw a happier opener 10 years later when Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
That White Sox win over the Tigers marked the last time he was able to attend Opening Day, but the fond memories remain. So does his hatred for the cross-town rival Cubs.
"Due to my work schedule, I haven't been able to attend an Opening Day since 2001," Ensworth lamented. "The best thing about Opening Day is just the excitement around the city and the team. It also marks the start of another losing season or collapse at some point for the Cubs and their fans, which I always enjoy seeing."