Opening Day. The pomp. The circumstance. The patriotic bunting. No, this isn't a post about the best National Anthems on Opening Day or the most entertaining first pitch thrown by a sitting President. It's about the games played on Opening Day.
The games. Oh yes, the baseball games. That's what Opening Day is all about. Playing baseball games. That count.
Now, technically, not all teams start their baseball season on the very first day of official games. This year, for instance, the A's and the Mariners had their Opening Day in Tokyo, Japan. Last week. The Marlins and the Cardinals kicked off their seasons last night with the first regular-season game at the new Marlins Ballpark. Seven additional "Opening Day" games will be played on today and seven more on Friday.
With that introduction, here are my awards for most memorable performances by baseball players in the first game played by their teams in a season.
Oh, one more thing. My list doesn't include the Opening Day moments that already have received lifetime achievement awards: Walter Johnson's 13-inning shutout for the Washington Senators in their Opening Day 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics on April 23, 1919; Bob Feller's no-hitter for the Indians against the White Sox on April 16, 1940; and Hank Aaron hitting career home run number 714 to tie Babe Ruth's record on April 4, 1974.
You know me. I like to do things a bit differently.
Willie Smith/Chicago Cubs, Opening Day 1969
Exactly. That's why I like this one. Willie Smith was a jack-of-all-trades ballplayer. He came up with the Tigers in 1963 as a pitcher. He started two games, pitched in nine others, and ended the season 1-0 with a 4.57 ERA. The next year he pitched 32 innings for the Angels, almost all in relief, going 1-4 with a 2.84 ERA. But Smith also played more than 700 innings in the outfield for the Angels that season, posting a slash of .301/.317/.465. Smith continued his career as an outfielder/first baseman, and didn't pitch again until 1968, when he threw five innings for the Indians and 2⅔ innings for the Cubs, after a mid-season trade. He also batted .275/.333/.465 with five home runs in 157 plate appearances.
The Cubs opened the 1969 season on April 4th, at home against the Phillies. Ferguson Jenkins on the mound for the Cubs, facing Chris Short of the Phillies. You might have expected a pitchers' duel, as both Short and Jenkins had posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 1968. Not on this day. Short allowed five runs in four innings while Jenkins gave up five runs in eight innings. By the end of nine, the score was tied at five. The Phillies took a one-run lead in the top of the eleventh. Ernie Banks led off the bottom of the inning with a fly-ball out. Randy Hundley then singled to left field. Cubs manager Leo Duroscher sent Willie Smith to the plate as a pinch hitter. Smith blasted a two-run home run to deep center field and the fans shouted, "Cubs Win! Cubs Win!"
Dusty Baker/Oakland Athletics, Opening Day 1986
Memorable doesn't necessarily mean "good." Things can be memorable and bad. Just ask Dusty Baker.
On April 8, 1986, the Twins opened their season against the A's in Oakland. Dusty Baker was the A's designated hitter that day and recorded the lowest Win Probability Added by a DH in an Opening Day game. Win Probability Added measures how a player affects his team's Win Expectancy on a play-by-play basis. Win Expectancy is the percent chance a team will win based on score, inning, outs, runners on base and the run environment. A player's WPA for a game is cumulative of all his WPA for each play in that game.
Baker's WPA on April 8, 1986 was -.612. The lowest WPA by a DH ever, in any game, is -.756. That honor belongs to Bill Schroeder, who went 0-for-6 for the Brewers in a game against the Mariners in 1987. Baker's is the fifth lowest ever by a DH.
How did he accomplish that feat? He singled in the bottom of the first with a runner on first and one out. Good start. Then he grounded out to lead off the third, flew out with a runner on first and one out in the fifth, flew out with a runner on first and two outs in the seventh, and hit into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded and one in the bottom of the ninth. The A's lost, 3-2.
Pedro Martinez/Boston Red Sox, Opening Day 2002
Pedro did something ugly? In 2002? When he went 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA and 8.3 fWAR? That was Pedro's prime, right? In the three prior seasons, Pedro posted a cumulative win-loss record of 48-13 with a 2.07 ERA and 28.1 fWAR. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 1999 and 2000. Granted, he spent much of 2001 on the disabled list with a rotator-cuff injury but bounced back with a superlative 2002.
But not on Opening Day.
The Red Sox opened the 2002 season at home against the Blue Jays. Chris Carpenter on the mound for the Jays; Pedro on the mound for the Sox. Right out of the gate, the Jays hit Pedro hard: walk, fly-ball out, line-out, hit by pitch, double, double, ground-out. Before the Red Sox came to the plate, the Jays had a 3-0 lead. The Sox scored one in the first to cut the lead to 3-1 but the Jays poured it on further in the second: double, reached on error, single, single, single, single, and three strikeouts. Four runs and a 7-1 Jays lead. Pedro gave up another run in the third and was two batters into the fourth when he Sox manager Grady Little pulled him for a reliever. All told: three innings pitched, eight runs, nine hits, two walks, a hit-by-pitch, and four strikeouts. The single worst start in Pedro Martinez's illustrious career with the Red Sox.
That's the thing about Opening Day. Everyone comes in with hope but only half the teams go home winners. Whatever happens, though, it's always memorable.