Opening Day: Why We Love It
Opening Day is finally upon us. Why is that so great? For one thing, it signals the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Now, we can finally get back to the long-honored tradition of going to the ballpark for the season opener, paying outrageous prices for a drink and a hot dog, and then “enduring” a three-and-a-half-hour game where the ball is in play for a grand total of 15 minutes. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?
Well, foreigners for one. (Yes, I’m always asked by foreigners how I can like a game that’s so slow and lacks intensity. I tell them, you’d understand if you saw the 2003 and 2004 ALCS. As it turns out, that doesn’t work.)
Yes, baseball is slow. Yet somehow it’s watched and loved by millions of fans who are used to the tortoise-like pace of our national pastime and can’t wait for a new season to start. When it does, baseball makes a spectacle of it. Unlike NBA and NHL seasons that start in the fall (and in an inside venue), baseball’s season usually begins with a day game, forcing us to all play hooky in order to see it.
And what have we seen? Everything.
Opening Day Follies
Back on Opening Day in 1907, the New York Giants played the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds in New York City following a heavy snowstorm. When the Giants fell behind, disgruntled fans (or perhaps bored ones) started pelting the players and umpires with snowballs—so much so, that the umps decided to have the Giants forfeit the game, giving Philadelphia the win. (I think this must have inspired Philly fans to pelt Santa Claus with snowballs 61 years later. They didn’t get the win in that one, though.)
Five years later, the Giants were on the other end of a bizarre Opening Day event when they were pounding Brooklyn 18–3 at Brooklyn’s Washington Park. Brooklyn’s frustrated fans ended up storming the field and delaying the game, which then had to be called in the sixth inning due to darkness.
In 1946, Boston Braves fans sitting in the newly painted outfield stands were “treated” to a fresh batch of wet paint on their pants. Apparently, the damp weather had caused the paint not to dry, and the team agreed to pay for everyone’s dry cleaning.
The Toronto Blue Jays played their first-ever game on Opening Day 1977 in a snow-filled Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. Game-time temperature was a “balmy” 32 degrees (Fahrenheit). In true Canada-style, a Zamboni was used to clear the snow off the field. Meanwhile, Canadian law prohibited the sale of beer at the game at the time. Toronto won the game 9–5 over the Chicago White Sox, although they would finish the season with a 54–107 record.
Ron Karkovice owns an Opening Day record he surely wishes to relinquish. The former White Sox catcher “achieved” the very rare platinum sombrero—striking out five times in one game—to christen the 1996 season against the Seattle Mariners. In all fairness to Karkovice, three of his K’s were against fireballer Randy Johnson.
In 1990, Houston first baseman Glenn Davis batted six times in the opener against Cincinnati, yet never put the ball in play. Davis was beaned an Opening Day record three times, drew two walks, and struck out once in the team’s 11-inning loss to the Reds.
Opening Day Firsts
The Detroit Tigers came back from a 13–4, ninth-inning deficit to beat the Milwaukee Brewers (who became the St. Louis Browns and eventually the Baltimore Orioles) 14–13, all the way back in 1901, for what is still the greatest Opening Day comeback. The Tigers hit five doubles, yet not a single home run, during the historic 10-run ninth.
In 1921, Babe Ruth pounded out five hits in the Yankees’ 11–1 win over the Philadelphia Athletics. Two years later, the Yankees unveiled Yankee Stadium for the season opener and Ruth christened it by hitting the first home run as the Yankees beat the Red Sox 4–1. (FYI, the Yankees have 76 Opening Day victories—fourth-most ever.)
Brooklyn trotted out 47-year-old starting pitcher Jack Quinn as their 1931 Opening Day starter—the oldest Opening Day starting pitcher ever. The right-hander gave up six runs in six innings for the loss, but rebounded to post a 5–4 record with a 2.66 ERA and a league-leading 13 saves that year and wound up pitching for two more seasons.
Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians pitched the first and still only Opening Day no-hitter in history when he blanked the White Sox 1–0 in the 1940 season opener.
Opening Day in 1947 saw Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color barrier, while breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson, then 28, reached on an error and scored a run in a 5–3 win over the Boston Braves. Robinson would go on to win Rookie of the Year that year—and eventually MVP two years later—while bravely opening the door for thousands of minorities.
In 1968, the New York Mets trotted out a 23-year-old phenom named Tom Seaver to pitch Opening Day—at the San Francisco Giants. It would mark the first of a record 16 Opening Day starts by Seaver—11 with the Mets, 3 for the Reds, and 2 more with the White Sox.
Six years after Seaver’s Opening Day debut, Hank Aaron hit No. 714 on Opening Day, tying him with Babe Ruth for the most home runs ever. He would retire with 755, which stood until Barry Bonds hit No. 756 in 2007.
Brewers outfielder Sixto Lezcano hit three career grand slams, but one came on Opening Day 1978 and another on Opening Day 1980, making him the only player in history with more than one Opening Day grand slam. Meanwhile, Hall-of-Famers Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr. share the lead for Opening Day home runs with eight apiece.
With his three home runs on Opening Day 1994, Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes tied the record (George Bell, Dmitri Young) for most Opening Day long balls in one game. It remains his one career highlight as the then-25-year-old was out of baseball less than two years later with a grand total of 13 career homers.
Mets, Yankees Start 2016 Against Familiar Foes
This year, the season starts in cruel fashion for Mets fans, as the NL champs have the “pleasure” of opening the season in Kansas City on April 3—and getting to watch the team that beat them in the World Series get their rings.
Meanwhile, the Yankees start the season in Yankee Stadium on April 4 against the team (and pitcher) that ended New York’s 2015 season on the same field—the Houston Astros and Dallas Keuchel.