This Annotated Week in Baseball History: April 1-7, 1996

On April 1, 1996 the Mets rallied to beat the Cardinals 7-6 on Opening Day. That’s not all of the story, nor the only oddity about the first day of the season that Richard turned up this week.

Opening Day has, in its own way, become a bit of a cliché. I love it as much as every baseball obsessive but truthfully I could do without the endless writings of what Opening Day symbolizes. Even as I write this, my father is listening to a story on NPR about baseball haikus, some of which, I’m sure, feature the deeper meanings of Opening Day.

In the sprit of remembering that although Opening Day is one of the best days of the year, it is about baseball and not all the other silliness, I have come up with a list of trivia about Opening Days through history.

Starting with today’s opening event: The Mets hosted the Cardinals at Shea Stadium in their first game of the season. The Mets were starting Bobby J. Jones. That’s the righthanded Bobby Jones also known as “Good Bobby Jones,” to differentiate him from his lefthanded counterpart. As it turned out, on this day even Good Bobby Jones wasn’t very good, giving up six runs in three and two-thirds. (Nothing like starting one’s season with a 14.72 ERA.)

His replacements managed much better and didn’t allow a run. This was crucial as a Todd Hundley home run cut the Redbirds’ lead to 6-2, and the Mets made it 6-3 heading into the seventh. They would score four runs that inning, and hold on to win 7-6. Why is this game notable? In coming back from six runs down, the Mets managed the largest comeback on Opening Day in the entire 20th century.

It is an often-stated cliché that Opening Day is ultimately just another game. That usually comes from fans of teams that lost on Opening Day. And they are right, of course; the first game counts in the standings just the same as the second or fifth or 50th.

But that’s not to say Opening Day isn’t important. In 2005, the Yankees and Red Sox resumed their rivalry with a season-opening Sunday night game at Yankee Stadium. Behind six strong innings from Randy Johnson, the Yankees cruised to a 9-3 victory.

Several months later, the Yankees and Red Sox were again at it, this time at Fenway Park. With Curt Schilling going six strong innings, this time it was the Red Sox’ chance to cruise and they did, winning 10-1. That gave them a final record of 95-67, identical to their longtime rivals.

Thanks to the tie-breaker system, however, the Yankees already had clinched the division title the day before and the Red Sox had to settle for the wild card. Had they managed to triumph on Opening Day, it would have been the Sox taking their first AL East title since 1995 and the Yankees relegated to the wild card for the first time since 1997. For once, Opening Day might actually be said to have decided a division.

In 1940, the Indians opened their season at old Comiskey Park in Chicago against the White Sox. It would be an unhappy day for White Sox fans as Bob Feller—Rapid Robert—lived up to his name and delivered a no-hitter for the Tribe. That was one of three no-hitters Feller threw over the course of his Hall of Fame career, but it remains the only no-hitter ever thrown on Opening Day.

That doesn’t mean that Opening Day has been devoid of great pitching performances. Walter Johnson is perhaps the ultimate “Opening Day Ace.” The Big Train started 14 Opening Days (for many years the record; Tom Seaver now holds it with 16) and threw seven shutouts. Perhaps not surprisingly, that is a record. Also a record is Jimmy Key’s seven wins without a loss in Opening Day starts, the most in that department.

Of hitters who have met success on Opening Day, none exceeds Frank Robinson. The ex-Nationals skipper (out of uniform on Opening Day for the first time since 2001 this year) slugged eight home runs on Opening Days, a record. Robinson’s homers were spread out across many games but three players, George Bell, Tuffy Rhodes and Dimitri Young, all hit three home runs on one Opening Day.

This inevitably leads to some wag noting that after one game, all three men were on pace to slug 486 home runs in a single season. As it turned out, Roger Maris or Barry Bonds needn’t have worried; none of the men finished with more than 21.

For all the successes on Opening Day, there have to be some failures. The most noteworthy came off the field rather than on it. In 1982, the Little Falls Mets (that’s low Single-A) announced plans to have a team of parachutists land on their field before the opening game of their New York Penn League season. As it turned out, from way up in the sky one ball field looks an awful like another and the parachutists found themselves landing in an empty softball field 10 miles away from the actual stadium. They arrived, so the story goes, 20 minutes late and rather ignobly by car.

The Dodgers had their own set of problems with Opening Day. In 1913, the team arrived at the brand new Ebbets Field and discovered the keys to the bleachers were misplaced, leaving many of the team’s fans to wander around and wait, I guess, for a locksmith to arrive. Trouble with new parks and Opening Days followed the team to Los Angeles when it was discovered that for all its charms—and there are many—Dodger Stadium had been constructed with absolutely zero water fountains. These days I might suspect a team of conspiring to sell more concessions, but I suppose the Dodgers get the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, no discussion of Opening Day is complete without mentioning the first pitch. As some of you might know, the first President to throw out a first pitch was William “Big Boy” Taft and almost every President has done it since. The most recent presidential first pitch was from George W. Bush, beginning the season for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006, continuing a nearly 100-year tradition.

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