Sadly, there is no game in baseball that rivals the Daytona 500. There are no parties that serve as the culmination of 2 weeks of hype. There is no excessive practice, time trials, and multiple contests that don't matter leading up to the big game. Past MVPs don't get to come back to compete one more time (at least since Bill Veeck died). Past winners don't automatically get a spot in the order regardless of how poorly they run. There is nothing in baseball that lives up to the hype. Sure, there's an all star game, but it hasn't mattered since Bud Selig called the game a tie. Even before that, it wasn't Pete Rose vs. Ray Fosse.
But Daytona is everything baseball could be if it didn't invite the Counting Crows to the All Star Game as the representative music of the game (sure, August and Everything After is great, but it's not rockin' or anything). Daytona got it right for their audience. Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley. Now, I'm not a country music fan in that I wear a cowboy hat and boots, but I know that this is what their fans like. Hell, Chris Daughtry would work, too. The point is that you please the fans.
Opening day is great for baseball, but it's not the tone for the season. It's 1 game and done. It's not a once and done chance for a rookie. It's not all or nothing. It's the beginning of a 162-game marathon. Sure, all games matter to stats, but you can recover in baseball. In NASCAR, it's about being sponsored and given a chance to ride constantly. Case in point - Trevor Bayne.
It's not quite a home run in the first at bat. Sure, that's a great starting point, but alas, this wasn't a first at bat. The first and only at bat before this was a single 17th place run (out of 43 drivers) at some point in the end of the last season by a 19 year old up for a cup of coffee.
Here's a man who never won in the NASCAR minor leagues (Nationwide series).
Here's a man on a team who hasn't won in 10 years.
Here's a man on a team with history - a history that many fans who are under 30 never got to see.
Here's a man on a team that hasn't won the Daytona since 1976. My wife was still in diapers at the time David Pearson won the race at 30mph after a crash.
Their last 3 winners are gone from racing altogether (Morgan Shepherd, Dale Jarrett, and Elliot Sadler).
And then a guy who is 20 years old and a day comes to race. He doesn't have a full season ride. He looks to be pre-pubescent. Nobody knows who he is, but he runs strongly all day.
In the end, a crash takes out Dale Jr. on the 10th anniversary of his father's death race. The front is lined up for 2 and done. A young kid who hasn't restarted well all day is in the lead and he gets a push from Bobby Labonte, a grizzled veteran who doesn't even belong at the race, but who is still up front because he's running well and because he was a past NASCAR champion. He's bump drafting Bayne and pushing him to be as great as he once was. He's in the lead. He's going for gold. It's like Tom Berenger as Jake Taylor in Major League... he's willing the youngsters to win by forcing his legs to make it to first on an improbable bunt (he'll finish 4th) and somehow, improbably, Carl Edwards who is getting pushed by David Gilliland can't get around him in the final stretch of the race and the kid wins.
He has to be told that he wins.
"I just feel unworthy …"
But it's not the humble young guy who won...
"they gave me a rocket ship."
He's thanking God and completely overwhelmed.
He has to be told how to get to Victory Lane.
Something in the moment is geared towards the end of a movie. It's fantastic. It's the start of something good... hopefully, it's a sequel that's better than Major League 2 (and much better than 3).
Baseball doesn't seem to offer up stories like that unless you watch really closely. When they do happen, they have to be in the playoffs or result in some degree of perfection (Dallas Braden's gem on Mother's Day), but we don't watch that live. We see the highlights - unless we have MLBTV and we're somehow fatefully there (like I was).
If only it could be that way again.
Here's to 2011 - 38 days.