04/05/10 12:00 AM ET
Opening Day is full of possibilities
Tradition has produced Robinson's debut, Aaron's 714th
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Jackie Robinson taking his position at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He went hitless that first day but reached on an error and scored the go-ahead run in the 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves.
Bullet Bob Feller, just 21, on the mound for Cleveland in 1940. With two outs in the ninth and Luke Appling aboard for the White Sox, second baseman Ray Mack lunged to his left to knock down a grounder by Taft Wright, recovered it, and threw to first baseman Hal Trotsky to preserve the only Opening Day no-hitter.
The Yankees dropped a 9-7 contest to the Red Sox on Sunday night to renew the most famous rivalry in sports, followed on Monday by 13 games, all in ballparks resplendent with patriotic bunting and the pageantry that represents hope and a new beginning.
The Findlay Market Parade in Cincinnati with Johnny Bench as Grand Marshal, and then the traditional opener with the Reds at home on Monday against St. Louis.
"They like that in Cincinnati," said current Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who managed the Reds to a win on Opening Day 20 years ago and saw his team go wire-to-wire for the franchise's last World Series title. "They take pride in that. They still do."
Opening Day is ...
Barack Obama throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at 1 p.m. ET on Monday in Washington, marking the 100th anniversary of a U.S. Presidential tradition that began when William Howard Taft did that before a Senators game in the nation's Capitol.
Roy Halladay throwing his first pitch in the same ballpark as President Obama, making his debut for the Phillies after the blockbuster multi-team transaction over the winter that also sent Cliff Lee to the Mariners and Kyle Drabek to the Blue Jays. It is a day when all of the offseason news and Spring Training previews become the real deal.
Babe Ruth hitting seven of his 714 home runs, including the first one in the history of the old Yankee Stadium in 1923. He homered in his final opener with the Red Sox in '19, helping them to a 10-0 victory over his future Yankees teammates. He homered in his final opener while playing for Boston's other team, the National League's Braves, in '35 -- off Carl Hubbell.
Hank Aaron hitting his 714th, in Cincinnati to start the 1974 campaign. On his first swing. It was a sinker from Jack Billingham, who said, "That's what makes Hank Aaron great. He hits mistakes." Aaron told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after that loss that he "thought that tying the record would mean a lot to me. But it was just another home run."
Frank Robinson taking Doc Medich deep in 1975 at Cleveland to break the Opening Day home run record of seven he had shared with Ruth, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays and Eddie Mathews. Robinson was player-manager that day for the Indians, becoming the first black manager in the Majors. In the crowd was Rachel Robinson, whose late husband, Jackie, had said he hoped to see that breakthrough one day.
"Cleveland fans and owners, I am proud, proud, proud to be here and I want to congratulate you on honoring yourself by being the first to take this important step," she told the crowd.
Opening Day is ...
Tom Seaver on the mound. He started 16 times in openers, more than anyone in Major League history. His record in those games was 7-2 with seven no-decisions. The first of those in 1971 was a 4-2 Mets victory over the visiting Montreal Expos in a game that was stopped by weather during the bottom of the fifth. It did not last long, but Tom Terrific was just getting started when it came to Opening Day.
Don Kerr's 1999 book, "Opening Day: All Major League Baseball Season Opening Games by Team, 1876-1998." Tom Boswell's '84 book, "Why Time Begins on Opening Day." Bart Giamatti's essay, "The Green Fields of the Mind." A deep legacy of baseball and literature that fed the big Opening Day machine, when you have the unquenchable thirst.
Red Smith typing in a press box what you had to read. In 1946, the legendary sportswriter compared an Opening Day game in Brooklyn between the Dodgers and Giants to "crepes suzette for breakfast, or a circus opening with the tigers uncaged." Five Aprils later, he wrote that "Whitey Ford, the Yankees' prize rookie of last year, walked out in his soldier suit to pitch the first ball, and then the season was open and it was New Year's Day."
Dmitri Young (Tigers, 2005), Tuffy Rhodes (Cubs, 1994) and George Bell (Blue Jays, 1988) each hitting three home runs in a game.
An introduction, always to a new season and often to greatness and destiny. At Dodger Stadium on the second Thursday of April in 1981, a rookie left-hander from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela shut out the Astros, 2-0. He was making his first Major League start (having appeared in 10 games in relief in 1980), and he immediately captivated the audience of 50,511 with his style and result. Fernandomania had officially began, lasting all season and on the way to a World Series title and Cy Young Award.
An occasional prophet such as Johnny Damon, who said this in an MLB.com Opening Day preview story on March 29, 2004: "By the time the season is over, everyone will know about the Boston Red Sox and what we can do. We have a big fan base around the country. A lot of people are pulling for us." They knew, all right. Boston won it all and reversed the curse.
Opening Day is ...
A three-year streak of eventual World Series champions losing the first game. Last year, the Yankees lost their opener at Baltimore. In 2008, the Phillies lost at home to Washington. In '07, Gil Meche and the Royals shut down Boston in Kansas City. The Cardinals won easy at Philly in '06 on their way to a title, and in '05, Mark Buehrle and Shingo Takatsu combined for a two-hit shutout of Cleveland to start a drought-busting season.
A shiny mirror to look at ourselves and see how much our lives have changed, even though so much remains the same. Consider what is happening right now in Houston. They are going to wear throwback jerseys from 1965 to commemorate that amazing day back then when Major League Baseball came to the Astrodome, the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Today, it still stands as a curious memory, with Minute Maid Park featuring its wondrous retractable roof. Now, Tampa Bay has MLB's only fixed-roof facility.
Target Field. Opening Day is not just a day, but literally "Opening Week" with the same pomp and circumstances accorded to the teams that had to open on the road. The first game at Minnesota's new ballpark will be on April 12 against the Red Sox. Based on the two exhibition games against St. Louis, it will be wonderful. A new way of life. How cool was it to just watch groundskeepers do their thing after Dome life?
The bad with the good. Only seven pitches into the 1996 opener at Cincinnati, home plate umpire John McSherry turned, stumbled forward and fell. He died of a heart attack. Players from both teams requested a postponement rather than playing ball with a replacement ump. "The team is rattled, really rattled," Reds manager Ray Knight said. "Nobody wants to play after seeing something like this happen." Opening Day was delayed one day, and a day later the Reds beat the Expos, 4-1.
Four errors by Pokey Reese at second base in 1998, in Cincinnati's 10-2 loss to San Diego. If there was a saving grace for him, it was knowing that five others had done that as well, including St. Louis Browns great George Sisler, who had four of his team's 10 errors to start the 1925 season in a 21-14 loss to Cleveland.
An 85-year wait for any nine-inning regulation Opening Day game to produce as many runs as the 35 in that one.
Hall of Famer Early Wynn confirming that "an opener is not like any other game. There's that little extra excitement, a faster beating of the heart. You have that anxiety to get off to a good start, for yourself and for the team. You know that when you win the first one, you can't lose 'em all."
Opening Day is ...
The first day of the rest of your life. It is as if a giant timeout on the calendar year had just been called, and now you can resume your normalcy.
A first glimpse at your own future as a fan. In 1998, in a state that had been so accustomed to love-em-and-leave-em Spring Training games, the Arizona Diamondbacks played their first Major League game. They lost to Colorado, 9-2, in front of 50,179 fans at what now is known as Chase Field. Andy Benes took the defeat. Travis Lee and Karim Garcia homered that day for Arizona. All that mattered to the home crowd was that Major League Baseball was being played there in an official capacity now, and Dan Haren is about to start for them against San Diego at home on Monday to begin their 13th season.
Herb Pennock of the A's losing a no-hitter in 1915, with two out in the ninth. He failed to do what Feller later achieved, by virtue of a different bounce to second base. In this case, the great Nap Lajoie, playing second, was unable to handle a high bounder hit by Boston's Harry Hooper. That went for an infield hit. Pennock still got the win, though, 2-0.
Red Ames actually throwing a no-hitter through nine innings, and yet going unrecognized for it. In 1909, while pitching for the Giants against Brooklyn, he was locked in a scoreless duel with Kaiser Wilhelm through nine. Wilhelm had allowed three hits. Finally in extra innings, the Dodgers roughed up Ames for seven hits and won it by a 3-0 count in the 13th. MLB does not recognize that as a no-hitter for Ames, so Feller stands alone in that category.
Nolan Ryan and Kevin Appier, and what might have been. Both pitchers had to leave with no-hitters in progress due to lost preparation time resulting from labor standoffs. The Ryan Express holds the record with seven career no-hitters, and there might have been an eighth had Rangers manager Bobby Valentine not been compelled to remove him after five innings with a 3-0 lead over visiting Toronto in 1990. (Ryan got his sixth and seventh no-nos in a little over a year's time after that.) Appier had not built up his arm sufficiently in 1995 due to the work stoppage that had canceled the prior World Series, so Royals manager Bob Boone had to yank him after 6 2/3 no-hit innings against the visiting Orioles.
Jimmy Key winning. His 7-0 record on Opening Day is the best, and the seventh victory came in 1997 when he recorded the 4-2 decision for Baltimore over Kansas City. He had won three openers for Toronto before that one as an Oriole, and he would go on to win three more with the Yankees.
"That's a record I'll cherish when I get out of this game," Key once told the Chicago Tribune, on his way to a 186-117 career record. "It's a little special to me. You always want to win your first start and have the team win. It's an important thing, and I feel good about that."
Opening Day is ...
Cubs fans and possibility. The team has not won it all since 1908. Every year there is an Opening Day and in the back of your mind, you have to wonder. They open at Atlanta Monday, and that reminds us that Opening Day is Bobby Cox in the Braves' dugout -- one more time.
A 1967 bookend for Bob Gibson. He struck out 13 Giants in a 6-0 victory next to the shimmery and still-new Arch, setting a Cardinals Opening Day record that still stands. He not only threw the first pitch of that season for the Cardinals, but he also threw the final one of that entire MLB season as well. It was Oct. 12 in Boston, and Gibson finished off a three-hit complete game that gave St. Louis the world championship in seven.
Potential never realized. Consider Dewon Brazelton, the third overall pick of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. He started at home for Tampa Bay opposite Toronto's Halladay on Opening Day of 2005 -- and then made just nine more career starts thereafter. Brazelton was 1-8 that '05 season, then after a pair of losses for San Diego in '06, his big league days were over.
Sixto Lezcano, the only player who ever hit two Opening Day grand slams, both for the Brewers. He did it in 1978 against the visiting Orioles, leading Milwaukee to an 11-3 victory. Then he did it two years later against the visiting Red Sox, a walk-off blast in the ninth that broke a 5-5 tie. Earlier that same game, Lezcano had hit a two-run shot.
Clydesdales circling the field in St. Louis. Military flyovers everywhere. Memories of Brooks Robinson's two homers in an Opening Day game as you watch Matt Wieters and the Orioles now. Vin Scully calling another first game for the Dodgers. Tim Lincecum's hair flying and his wild delivery, which comes to Houston on Monday for the 7:05 p.m. ET start against Roy Oswalt and the Astros.
You wonder if Lincecum might treat this 40th anniversary in Houston the way Chris Short treated that Astrodome debut back in 1965. Short was pitching for Philadelphia, striking out 11 and holding Houston to four hits in a 2-0 Phillies victory. For this game, Lincecum begins what could be an unprecedented three consecutive NL Cy Youngs to start a career.
Mariners, Rangers and Nationals fans, all wondering if it is their turn. They are the only three existing franchises that have never been to the World Series.
That is Opening Day. Watching it all begin. Wondering how it might wind up.