04/02/2004 6:26 AM ET
Opening Day is a blank canvas
By Tom Singer / MLB.com analysis
Poets and other romantics often describe the diamond as a canvas, for artists whose medium is resin and pine tar.
|Tom Seaver has a record 16 Opening Day starts. (AP)
Well, Opening Day is when that canvas is blank. It's a rebirth, it's the proverbial Square One, it's a surer sign of spring than hanging up the window screens.
This is the day -- or night -- when life presses the "reset" button. Everyone's slate is zeroed out, but the notion that they all start out even is faulty.
An .000 average is terrifying for batters. But an 0.00 ERA is glorious for pitchers.
Everything about this day, of course, is bathed in glory for the Opening Day starter. He is Leonard Bernstein standing with his baton raised in front of a poised orchestra and a hushed hall, or Scorcese about to shout, "Action!"
You know a pitcher's mind-set as he toes the rubber: "Nothing happens until I throw this ball." That power is greatest on Opening Day.
It is the only day when "No. 1 starter" really means anything, before the season's cyclical schedule takes over.
|Opening Day Starters
Anaheim: Bartolo Colon
Arizona: Randy Johnson
Atlanta: Russ Ortiz
Baltimore: Sidney Ponson
Boston: Pedro Martinez
Chi Cubs: Kerry Wood
Chi White Sox: Mark Buehrle
Cincinnati: Cory Lidle
Cleveland: C.C. Sabathia
Colorado: Shawn Estes
Detroit: Jason Johnson
Florida: Josh Beckett
Houston: Roy Oswalt
Kansas City: Brian Anderson
Los Angeles: Hideo Nomo
Milwaukee: Ben Sheets
Minnesota: Brad Radke
Montreal: Livan Hernandez
NY Mets: Tom Glavine
NY Yankees: Mike Mussina
Oakland: Tim Hudson
Philadelphia: Kevin Millwood
Pittsburgh: Kip Wells
San Diego: Brian Lawrence
San Francisco: Kirk Rueter
Seattle: Jamie Moyer
St. Louis: Matt Morris
Tampa Bay: Victor Zambrano
Texas: Kenny Rogers
Toronto: Roy Halladay
"It is very special ... you start the season for your club, you get it going," says Tom Seaver, the premier expert on this subject.
The Hall of Fame right-hander made more Opening Day starts -- 16 -- than any pitcher in history. "To me it was always more symbolic than anything. You get out of here," Seaver says, meaning Spring Training, "and get to work. You try to get your club off on the right foot."
You do not, in truth, set a tone for the entire season, considering that in 43 seasons of 162-game schedules, the 1990 Reds and the 2001 Mariners are the only teams to have led wire-to-wire.
Or you set the wrong tone: Mike Maroth's 2003 Opening Day start turned into the first of his 21 and the Tigers' 119 losses.
Still, the prestige of making the first mark on that canvas is seductive.
"Knowing that when the team takes the field for the first inning, you are going to have a chance to experience that with the guys is great," says the Pirates' Kip Wells. "I need to set the tone and give our team a boost by doing a good job and giving the offense, defense and fans something enjoyable to be a part of."
Mostly, you embody a winter's anticipation and a spring's hopes. After months of spin-doctoring, it's time to spin that baseball out of your hand.
It's confirmation ...
"It's symbolic of the things you've done prior to the year, the last couple of seasons," says the Padres' Brian Lawrence, who drew his second straight Opening Day assignment. "It's an honor. Other than that you just try and go out there and pitch and try to get over the buildup and the adrenaline that is going to be common with that day.
"It's a big day. Everybody is excited and you can probably get too amped up for it, but you just try and settle yourself down. It's time to get the job done."
It's reaffirmation ...
Josh Beckett, who had a relatively low profile until blossoming into a World Series MVP in October, gets the ball for the Marlins.
"It's a big deal," Beckett says, "but any one of us could have done it and done a good job."
Before a packed Pro Player Stadium on April 6, Beckett will be opposed by the Expos and Livan Hernandez -- the Marlins' own Opening Day starter in 1998.
Jamie Moyer, coming off a season in which he became only the third forty-something 20-game winner, leads off for the Mariners' iron-clad rotation.
"It's an honor," Moyer says. "It's especially exciting for the fans, because it marks the beginning of spring and warmer weather. But I have to keep my focus and thoughts in the right direction and not get caught up in all the hoopla and excitement. There is Opening Day and then 161 games."
That's the voice of experience. Moyer's only other Opening Day start came in 2000 -- which he ended with a 13-10 record, the worst of his eight seasons in Seattle.
Roy Oswalt, who squeezed 10 wins out of a season often interrupted by groin problems, gets the symbolic shot to show he is still the ace of a Houston staff bolstered by Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
"It's an honor," Oswalt says, "so of course it's special. But I don't see (the others) behind me. I see them with me."
It's a time to resurface ...
Shawn Estes snuck into the Rockies' camp on a minor-league deal and starts their opener against Arizona. Brian Anderson, a lightning-rod lefty who has crackled for four other teams, now gets a chance to flash for the Royals.
But perhaps no other Opening Day starter has traveled the potholed road of Cory Lidle, who will lead off for the Reds, the fifth team of his seven-year career.
"From what I understand, Cincinnati goes crazy for the Reds and Opening Day is quite a celebration," Lidle says, "so it's going to be a neat experience and I'm looking forward to it. I think I'm ready for it."
So is Cincinnati, where this has always been a Red-letter day and the opener sold out in record time. "I know," Lidle says, "they didn't sell out in 16 minutes for me."
Or, it's just a second chance to make a first impression ...
Tom Glavine also started his first Mets season, and that turned into a 15-2 loss to the Cubs, the Majors' worst Opening Day drubbing in 52 years.
He gives it another go, against the Braves, his former club for whom he started four openers.
"My goal is to just be ready to pitch and be as sharp and healthy as I can for whenever I pitch," Glavine says. "I think sometime too much is made of being the Opening Day starter. Everyone is always quick to take that ace label and there is some validity to that."
Sometimes, Opening Day's validation is fleeting, as permanent as a daffodil's petals. Only a year ago ...
"I don't think, this being my last year, I'm any less excited by the opportunity of taking us out of the gate." -- So spoke Roger Clemens about his 13th Opening Day start. (Note: Had the Rocket chosen to stay in the AL for his re-entry, he could have tied the league record for Opening Day starts shared by Jack Morris and Walter Johnson.)
Hideo Nomo pitched the Dodgers to an 8-0 victory over Arizona (and Randy Johnson, his first defeat in 12 Opening Day starts). The retro LA offense would not score that many runs again until Game No. 19, and do so only 12 times all season.
Other times, Opening Day sets a reliable precedent, confirmed by the clarity of hindsight ...
Pedro Martinez is removed from Boston's 2003 opener after seven innings of three-hit ball, and the Devil Rays torch the Red Sox bullpen for five runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 6-4. Who knows whether 208 days later that flashes through the mind of Grady Little, who leaves Pedro in Game 7 of the ALCS?
The defending NL champion Dodgers and the Phillies, who had finished 16 games out, meet in the 1950 opener in Connie Mack Stadium.
Robin Roberts starts for Philadelphia and goes the route for a 9-1 victory. History now records that day as the birth of the Whiz Kids who go on to take the Phillies' first pennant.
Roberts, in the current issue of Baseball Digest: "The Dodgers had a strong team. They won the pennant in 1949 and were favored to win again. When we beat them that day, it got us going and gave us confidence, a special feeling we could go all the way."
There must be something special about a day its participants can recall so lucidly 54 years later.
The anticipation builds through the pageantry, the aroma of freshly-mowed grass, the slam of the bullpen gate behind you, the fading last note of the National Anthem, and the umpire pointing an index finger at you, bellowing "Play Ball!"
And you stand on the mound, prepared to throw the ball and throw yourself at the fates to make you a hero, a goat ... or just a punch-line.
"I remember the year (1975) they switched from horsehide to cowhide balls," says Don Sutton, who started seven straight openers for the Dodgers 1972 through 1978. "They told me the ball from the first pitch I threw would go into the Hall of Fame.
"So I threw a fat fastball right down the middle -- and it got hit halfway up the pavilion.
"Afterwards, Tom Lasorda comes up to me and says, 'We were going to ship that ball to Cooperstown. You didn't have to air-mail it.'"
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.