Technically, it's already spring. But some people think it's not official until the sunshine, the hot dogs and the crack of the bat of baseball's opening day.
"There's a sense of rebirth of the spirit as well as rebirth of the land," said Edward J. Rielly, author of "Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture."
"When you use the term 'opening day' with most people in the United States, they know what you're talking about," said Christopher Hodge Evans, co-author of "The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture." "It symbolizes hope … it's the sense of starting over, but it's [also] the sense of continuity with the past."
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees played the first game of the Major League Baseball season Sunday night. But for most teams, opening day is today. Michelle Donnelon, manager at Logo's Sports Bar & Grill in Blue Ash, Ohio, has standing-room tickets to today's Mets-Reds game in Cincinnati.
"I really enjoy the prospect of going to opening day, the whole fanfare of it -- it's just majestic," she said. "When you go to opening day, it just lifts your spirits up for the whole year."
Sports are more than just games, scholars say. Often, they help frame people's lives, and not just in North America (see related story). Whether fans or not, Americans often mark spring and summer, and bond with their families, via baseball -- just as some do with football, basketball and hockey (the current strike notwithstanding) at other times of the year.
'We Know Who's Won'
Sports capture people's imaginations because they fill a unique role as entertainment, according to Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do."
Unlike movies and plays, sports offer the suspense of an unscripted outcome, and the authenticity of genuine accomplishment rather than dramatic re-enactments, Mandelbaum said. And unlike real life, they feature clear rules, boundaries and outcomes.
"Life increasingly does not have … coherence," Mandelbaum said. "Games have a beginning, a middle and an end. And at the end of a season, we know who's won."
Besides entertaining us, sports offer unique forums for personal expression, said Noel Dyck, who edited the anthology "Games, Sports and Cultures."
"There are things that you're able to do in sport that are not really possible in other aspects of life," said Dyck, a professor of social anthropology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. "The way baseball players congratulate themselves after a home run, that's something that men normally are more careful about in public."
Sports also can foster expression off the field by easing conversation among friends and strangers alike.
Some suggest sports may reflect evolution of a culture.
Mandelbaum theorizes that the three most-popular American team sports each had their "golden age" during different American eras, and they reflect the values of those eras.
Baseball is a "rural, agrarian, traditional sport, which harkens back to the past," and reflects the era of the 1920s to the 1950s, Mandelbaum said.
Football, on the other hand, "is the sport of factories and the machine age," with emphasis on brute force as well as skill, and glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, he added.
"Basketball [which gained international popularity in the 1980s and 1990s] is the post-industrial sport. It is the sport of offices … and the networked society," Mandelbaum said, noting that women and men play by the same rules. "Everybody does everything," he said, "It requires more spontaneous coordination and teamwork."
Hockey may contain aspects of football and basketball, Mandelbaum added, in that it is a ball-and-goal game with lots of physical contact.
'Loved the Game'
But others resist such generalized theories, noting that America and other nations embrace many sports with regional preferences and subcultures also in the mix.
"You listen to any sports talk program, they focus on a very small range of sporting activity," Dyck said. "There are games played in Canadian and American cities that the vast majority of Americans don't even understand are being played.
"If you think of it in terms of all the different television channels … there's so many niches that people can attach themselves to," Dyck added. "Check out those little sub-worlds, those worlds that are based around cycling, that are based around tennis, that are based upon track and field.
"Our sports reflect who we are, but we're not just one thing," Dyck said. "We're not just homogeneous, stereotypical versions of ourselves."
Even with the wide variety of sports out there, some say it is no surprise that baseball came to be known as "America's pastime."
As the longest-organized of America's major team sports, with professional play dating to the mid-1800s, baseball may have seemed old and traditional even at the end of the 19th century. And despite baseball's apparent roots in British schoolyard games, early boosters characterized it as a uniquely American sport, even propagating the false myth that it was invented from scratch in Cooperstown, N.Y., by a Civil War figure, Abner Doubleday.
Regardless of its possibly foreign roots, "baseball, as we know it is, really is an American creation," said Rielly, the baseball author and an English professor at St. Joseph's College of Maine. "It has become really our sport. Starting in the 19th century, we started exporting baseball to other countries … like Japan and Australia."
Since then, baseball has helped frame social debates on issues such as race relations, labor rights and drug policies. Congress' recent steroids hearings centered on baseball rather than other sports that have similar problems, Rielly said.
"I think baseball remains America's national pastime even if it may not be, any longer, America's most-popular sport," Rielly added. "It's just been here longer than basketball and football … throughout that long history, it has reflected just about every aspect of American society. So we can study, if we want to, the history of American culture by looking at baseball. If we tried to do that with football and basketball, we'd have many gaps."
The early bond between the nation and its pastime was no coincidence. Evans -- who, besides being a baseball author, is a professor of church history at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. -- said early religious and secular proponents used missionary-like language and comparisons to the Protestant work ethic to spread baseball's popularity in America and imperialistic paternalism to tout it in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
"Baseball became synonymous with the American way because it embodied the virtues of fairness and hard work," Evans said, adding teamwork and the notion of sacrifice to the list of the early game's perceived virtues.
"They really saw it and they talked about it in holy terms, that baseball was this kind of game that was somehow going to sanctify the nation," Evans said. "Baseball was going to be an agent in Christianizing America, and you see this rhetoric over and over."
Fields of Dreams
There also was a utopian aspect.
"Many of the [earliest] ballparks were built in economically depressed areas," Evans said. "These parks were seen as a sign of God's coming kingdom on Earth … [because] you're bringing the pastoral virtues of small-town, rural America to the heart of a large city."
Baseball fanatics still play the "Field of Dreams" card to this day.
"There is a sense of nostalgia as we go to those games," Rielly said. "Even though that stadium may be plopped down in the center of a large city … we have that sense that we're connecting with something that is a part of our past, almost the sense that we're going to a museum."
Donnelon, the bar manager and Reds fan, said this will be her third-straight opening day, and each year she looks forward to catching up with her friends and family at the game.
"Going to the stadium is like going back to a family reunion," she said. "The beer is good, too."