Openers for the agesby Craig Brown
March 28, 2008
“You always get a special kick on Opening Day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
- Joe DiMaggio
With the Red Sox and A's already having played their opener and the Braves and the Nationals set to begin their season Sunday night, it feels more like Opening Week these days. But there is still something special about Opening Day. Part of what makes Opening Day so much fun is that the individual performances really stand out. When we open the Rundown on our computers the next day, there will be a bunch of players with batting averages that look like 1.000, .750, .333 or even the dreaded .000.
Sometimes a great opener is a harbinger of a great season to come. Other times, it’s the brightest moment in a player’s career, made all the more special because it was noticeable. It happened on Opening Day.
What follows is a collection of memorable Opening Days since the beginning of divisional play in 1969.
Opening Day 1970: Brandt Alyea’s big day
Alyea was a little-used utility player when he got the starting nod for the Twins in left field on Opening Day in 1970. Acquired in a trade the previous winter from the Washington Senators, at that point Alyea had a career that spanned parts of three seasons. By 1970, he had 400 career at-bats and had hit .255/.330/.440 with 19 home runs and 69 RBI, spanning parts of three seasons. Never an everyday player, Alyea provided right-handed power off the bench. It was Alyea’s first time in the Opening Day lineup. He responded by going 4-for-4 with two home runs and seven RBI.
It was the beginning of an awesome month of April for Alyea, who had three other four-RBI games. He hit .415/.483/.774 that month, playing a huge role in the Twins' winning 12 of their first 18 games on their way to their second consecutive AL Western Division title.
But over his next 26 games and 77 at bats, Alyea cooled off, hitting just .169/.281/.260 with only two home runs and seven RBI. By July, he lost his starting job to Jim Holt.
Although he saw considerable playing time down the stretch in 1970, he appeared in only 79 games in 1971. Part of the reason was a sharp decline in his power. In 158 at-bats that season, he hit just .177/.282/.241 with two home runs. By 1973, he was out of baseball.
Opening Day 1971: Fergie Jenkins vs. Bob Gibson
It stands to reason, since teams use their best pitchers on Opening Day, that if you go back far enough there will be a number of games where future Hall of Famers are going head to head.
The 1971 opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs was one such game.
Coming off a 1970 season in which he won 23 games with a 3.12 ERA and claimed the NL Cy Young Award, Gibson was not at his sharpest in this one. Through the first nine innings, he retired the side in order only three times and issued four walks and six hits. He was touched for a run in the fourth when he surrendered singles to Billy Williams and Ron Santo, putting runners at the corners. The next batter, Joe Pepitone, grounded to third and Williams was cut down trying to score. Damage was averted for one hitter, but Johnny Callison drove a double to right for the game’s first run.
Jenkins, on the other hand, was cruising. Through 10 innings, he allowed three hits while striking out 10. His only mistake was a pitch Joe Torre homered on in the seventh to tie the game.
On that Opening Day, both pitchers forged on into extra innings. The duel was until the bottom of the 10th, when Williams came to the plate with one out and ended the game with a home run.
It was a great start to a 1971 season in which Jenkins won his only Cy Young award. He finished that year as the league leader in wins (24) and innings (325) while throwing 30 complete games with a 2.77 ERA.
Opening Day 1980: Deja vu all over again
The Yankees traveled to Arlington, Tex., to face the Rangers in the 1980 season opener. Ron Guidry, two years removed from his dominating 1978 season, was starting against the Rangers' ace, Jon Matlack. Both pitchers dominated and the game was a scoreless draw through nine innings in which a total of five batters had even reached base: Guidry surrendered two hits while Matlack gave up three. Neither walked a batter.
When the game reached extra innings, both starters gave way to the bullpen. The Yankees threatened with two runners on with one out in the top of the 10th, but couldn’t push a run across. The game moved on.
In the bottom of the 12th, Mickey Rivers led off for the Rangers with a single to third and took second on Graig Nettles’ throwing error. Rivers moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, so the Yankees then intentionally walked the bases loaded to set up a force out at any base.
With the game on the line, Yankees manager Dick Howser went to his closer. Rich Gossage would face Richie Zisk.
It wasn’t the first time these two had squared off on Opening Day with the game on the line.
On Opening Day 1978, the Yankees and Guidry had met the Rangers and Matlack. And on that day, just as in 1980, both pitchers were outstanding. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Zisk led off against Gossage. At that point in their careers, Zisk had never faced the Yankees closer. It didn’t seem to faze the Rangers slugger: He hit a solo bomb and gave his team the 2-1 victory.
Now it was two years later and virtually the same situation. Gossage against Zisk with the game on the line.
This time, Zisk didn’t even have to swing the bat.
Gossage uncorked a wild pitch, bringing home Rivers with the only run of the night. The Rangers once again got the better of the Yankees on Opening Day in Texas.
Opening Day 1978 and Opening Day 1980: The grand slam man
Sixto Lezcano played for five teams, batting .271/.360/.440 with 148 home runs in a career that spanned 12 years. Most of his productive seasons were with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Batting fifth for the Brewers in the 1978 opener, Lezcano came up in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and the Brewers already ahead 6-0. Facing Baltimore’s Tim Stoddard, Lezcano blasted a grand slam to put the game totally out of reach. Milwaukee went on to win 10-3.
Two years later, Lezcano hit another grand slam on Opening Day, but under much different circumstances.
With the 1980 opener against Boston tied at five in the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox brought in Dick Drago to try to push the game to extra innings. Drago immediately got into trouble, surrendering a single to leadoff hitter Paul Molitor. But he managed to get two quick outs when Cecil Cooper (who would hit .352 in 1980) sacrificed Molitor to second and designated hitter Dick Davis fouled out.
Needing just one out to escape the inning, the Red Sox elected to walk power-hitting Ben Oglivie to pitch to power-hitting Gorman Thomas. Oglivie was a much better contact hitter than Thomas, who would lead the AL with 170 strikeouts that year. But Drago missed the strike zone on Thomas, walking him and loading the bases for Lezcano.
Lezcano had already had quite a game. With his team trailing by two in the bottom of the fourth, he hit a two-run home run off starter Dennis Eckersley to tie the game at three. Now facing Drago, he had a chance to win the game for the Brewers in the ninth.
Boom. Lezcano cleared the bases with his second grand slam in his last three Opening Days.
When his career ended in 1985, Lezcano had a total of three grand slams to his credit. He’s the only player with more than one grand slam on Opening Day.
Opening Day, 1981: The birth of Fernandomania
It’s rare when a rookie is chosen to start Opening Day, but for those of us who were alive and watching baseball in 1981, there’s no way we could forget the hype surrounding the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela.
Featuring a wicked screwball and a delivery in which he looked to the heavens and then closed his eyes, Valenzuela took the mound that afternoon at Chavez Ravine and stymied the Astros. In throwing a shoutout, he allowed just five hits while striking out five in a 2-0 Dodgers win.
He gained strength as the game progressed and retired 10 in a row until Art Howe singled with two down in the ninth inning. He then struck out first baseman Dave Roberts to end the game and a star was born.
Over the first eight starts of his career in 1981, Valenzuela was phenomenal, throwing nine innings in every start with seven complete games (one game went extra innings, but he still got the win) and five shutouts. In those 72 innings, he allowed just 42 hits and 17 walks while striking out 68. He had a 0.50 ERA. If something like that happened today, the Internet would explode with cries of pitcher abuse. Back then, it elevated Valenzuela to folk-hero status.
But there could be no doubt about it, Valenzuela was being pushed to the extreme and began to struggle, winning just two of his next seven starts while posting a 5.36 ERA. Not that it really mattered, becuase a legend had been born.
In the strike-shortened season of 1981, Valenzuela finished with 13 wins and a 2.48 ERA. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award and the NL Cy Young, finished fifth in the voting for MVP and was the starter for the National League in the All-Star game. He also started five postseason games for the Dodgers on their way to the World Series title.
The Opening Day dominator
In the 1980s, Atlanta’s Rick Mahler was about as league average as they come. In a 13-year career beginning in 1979, he won 96 games and lost 111. His career ERA was 3.99, against a league average ERA over that time of 3.84 and his strikeout to walk ratio was about 1.5K/1 BB.
But when Mahler got the ball on Opening Day, he was one of the best pitchers in the game.
From 1982 to 1987, Mahler started four openers for the Braves and won all four. Over those four starts, Mahler threw 34 innings while allowing just 13 hits and 11 walks, and had 15 strikeouts. That’s a pretty dominating performance, but what made it even better was that in those four starts, Mahler didn’t allow a single run. For a brief time, he was the king of Opening Day, with four wins, three shutouts and a 0.00 ERA.
His stellar run ended when he started the 1988 opener, and allowed four runs over five innings. However, he did pitch a scoreless first inning.
That gave him 35 consecutive scoreless innings on Opening Day, which must be some kind of record.
The last several years have seen other notable openers for hitters, including three-homer games from George Bell, Dmitri Young and Tuffy Rhodes. But as baseball has evolved away from the complete game for pitchers, there are fewer standout games from starters.
Maybe this year, there will be a performance worthy of inclusion on this list.
References and Resources
Research like this would not be possible without the wonderful Retrosheet and Baseball Reference.
Craig writes about the Royals at Royals Authority. The Royals Authority 2009 Annual, featuring detailed player profiles and a complete look at the minor leagues is now on sale. He welcomes all questions and comments via e-mail. Or just follow him on Twitter.