They'll parade through downtown, and there will be a party in Fountain Square. The day is officially a holiday in the city of Cincinnati. And at 4:05 p.m. ET, there's the reason for the reveling: a ballgame.
It's not just any ballgame, either. Thursday's contest between the hometown Reds and visiting Marlins features two clubs with high aspirations and expectations of playing in October. The Reds are co-favorites along with the Cardinals in the National League Central, while the revamped Marlins have designs on challenging in the loaded NL East.
It may not be a traditional matchup, but it's a good one. It's also perfectly appropriate for Opening Day, as two clubs look to put disappointing 2011 seasons behind them and get on with their futures.
"Everything all around is going to be different," said Marlins infielder Hanley Ramirez. "I think there is a lot of energy and a lot of good things are around us. It's good for our organization. I've been around here for six, seven years. This is the year that everybody has been looking for and waiting for."
While the new faces will get huge cheers when the Marlins open on Wednesday, it's safe to say the biggest cheer on Thursday will be for a returning Redleg. Joey Votto, the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player, has agreed to a massive new contract that will likely keep him in Cincinnati for the entirety of his career. Thursday will provide the first opportunity for the faithful to express their delight at the deal.
Votto, meanwhile, is looking at what's around him along with what's on the table in front of him. The money is certainly excellent, but he's also committed to an organization he believes is going to win.
"I think we've got a competitive player at every position," he said. "At nearly every position, we have a potential All-Star. I think we have several starting pitchers that will get us deep into the game. And we've got an offense that can outscore quite a few teams."
Thursday's pitching matchup is emblematic of the paths the two teams have taken to get to this point. Homegrown star Johnny Cueto, who emerged as an ace-level pitcher last year, toes the rubber for the Reds in their opener. Miami, which will be playing its second game after opening its new ballpark against the Cardinals on Wednesday night, will counter with new free-agent signing Mark Buehrle.
The Reds certainly made some moves over the winter, in particular bolstering their pitching staff with Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and the injured Ryan Madson, who will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery. But the core of the club still consists of many of the same players from recent years like Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips.
And few players are more critical to the Reds' hopes in 2012 than Cueto. He'll be expected to pitch at that high level again, providing a 1-2 punch with Latos at the front of the rotation. The Reds have some questions in their bullpen even after the offseason reworking, so they'll need to get innings from the starters. That begins Thursday with Cueto, who made only 24 starts last year but averaged a career-best 6.5 innings per game.
"He has such a great feel for pitching," rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco said of the first-time Opening Day starter. "He knows how to get hitters out. He's always thinking a pitch ahead, the sequences and everything. ... You either have it or you don't. It was something he was born with and he knows he needs to study hitters and he picks up things from them."
Miami underwent a major roster makeover during the winter, overhauling its rotation, bullpen and lineup with additions such as Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano, Heath Bell and Jose Reyes. Buehrle will be expected to provide innings and stability to a rotation that ranked 12th in the NL in ERA and innings in 2011.
The return of Josh Johnson, Wednesday night's starter, from injury should also help that, but Buehrle figures to be a key cog in his first go-round in the NL. And while it will be nice not to face a designated hitter, his first NL start won't exactly come in a friendly ballpark. When Buehrle's right, though, he can get it done just about anywhere, as seven shutout innings in his only previous start in Cincinnati attest.
The bigger issue for Buehrle may be the defense behind him, which does not figure to be one of the better fielding units in the league. As a pitcher who doesn't strike out many batters, Buehrle relies heavily on his defense. How it catches the ball behind him will be one of the biggest factors in whether he succeeds in 2012.
All of which is to say, there are quite a few unknowns here. That's what makes the winter interesting. But on Thursday, those unknowns start becoming known. Baseball will be back in Cincinnati, which means baseball is back, period.