Why Time Begins on Opening Day
by Thomas Boswell
Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1984

The late Shirley Povich once described his Washington Post colleague Thomas Boswell as "a student and unmatched chronicler-philosopher" of baseball. It was works such as Why Time Begins on Opening Day that Povich had in mind when he wrote those words.

While Boswell is indeed a bit of a philosopher and is occasionally guilty of the sort of navel-gazing implied by a title like Why TimeBegins on Opening Day (or his earlier How Life Imitate the World Series), it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him strictly as a "baseball-as-metaphor for life" type. Boswell is a reporter and fan more than he is a poet. In other words, the "chronicler" part of Povich's description is just as important as the "philosopher" part.

Why Time Begins on Opening Day is a collection of Boswell's Washington Post columns and some longer magazine articles, most of which were first published from 1981 to 1983. And while some of the topics are dated (the 1981 World Series, Mark Fydrich's attempted comeback), the book still is an interesting read.

Boswell writes chapters about catchers, umpires, pinch hitters and thirdbasemen (including an intriguing look at Graig Nettles' convention-defying defensive philosophy). The book includes a long piece on managerial archetypes, blending an historical look at managers with profiles of then-active skippers like Whitey Herzog, Gene Mauch and Tommy Lasorda. Boswell's comparison of the cerebral but ultimately unsuccessful Mauch vs. the shallow but winning Lasorda is by itself enough reason to read the book.

The author profiles Jim Palmer, visits the 1983 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, chronicles the 1982 College World Series and takes the reader on a tour of various major league ballparks. He visits a group of fans who have created the United Baseball League, "perhaps the most complex, fascinating and potentially obsessive parlor game devised. The game is played with two 10-sided dice, cards that rate individual players in every category from 'gopher-ball factor' to frequency of hitting into double plays, and five 'play charts' explaining what each roll of the dice means. Its 16 members, each an owner of a franchise, is arguably, the most sophisticated and fanatical baseball fans alive."

In one chapter, Boswell makes the then-novel argument that Mike Schmidt will go down in history as the game's best third sacker. Before we give Boswell too much credit for prescience, though, I should point out that he also argues that Robin Yount may end up as the best shortstop ever. But the overall point of the essay--"that we should appreciate great players while they are active"--is still valid.

One of the book's best chapters explores some of the many myths that have developed about baseball over the years. Boswell talks to players, managers and coaches and overturns much of the game's cliched conventional wisdom:

"Sometimes it seems like every other thing you hear is backwards," says the Orioles' John Lowenstein. "They tell a hitter that he should 'swing down.' That would be great, if the object of the game were to hit the ball between people's legs. But they've got fences out there and they let you run around the bases for free if you hit it over the wall. So, obviously, you should be swinging slightly up."

The chapter also discusses Charlie Lau's revolutionary hitting theories:

[Lau] has stood the conventional notion of the baseball swing on its head. In fact, the baseball swing that he teaches is really the golf swing, only shifted into a slightly different plane.

For decades, hitting coaches have preached, "Keep your weight back; don't hit off your front foot," and "snap your wrists; your top hand is your power hand." These dicta were true for Ruth and Williams and DiMaggio, but in the era of the slider, it has become more important to wait until the last instant to commit the swing. In a time of spacious, symmetrical AstroTurf parks, all-fields hit-drive hitting has been more rewarded.

So, the time was right for an alternate theory of the swing. The heretical Chairman Lau said, among other things, "Hit off your front foot," and "Don't roll your wrists; your lead arm, not your top hand, is your source of power."

Another highlight is a long article on the 1982 Orioles. Boswell chronicles in fascinating detail the Orioles season-long pursuit of the Milwaukee Brewers, climaxing in a four game season-ending series in Baltimore. Boswell takes us through the drama as the O's take the first three games, setting up a dramatic final game featuring a pitching matchup of future Hall-of-Famers Jim Palmer and Don Sutton. Unbelievably, the game also was the last of Earl Weaver's storied career (well, he came back three years later, but no one knew that at the time.)

Along the way, we meet the Orioles, including Cal Ripken, then in his rookie season. Boswell credits Ripken with carrying the team through much of the stretch drive and lighting a fire under a group of complacent veterans, a startling idea given Ripken's current reputation as a, well, complacent veteran.

Overall, Why Time Begins on Opening Day is interesting because it has a little bit of everything: narratives of pennant races and World Series, insightful profiles of interesting players and managers, articles on fans, discussions of practical aspects of playing baseball, a bit of baseball history. This book is highly recommended for fans with a general interest in baseball topics.

Why Time Begins on Opening Day may be available for purchase on the net at one of these sites.

--Justin, March 15, 1999