February 2014

22 Days – Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw is now likely to make a fourth consecutive Opening Day start for the Dodgers on March 22, three days after his 26th birthday, against Arizona in the first game of Major League Baseball’s Opening Series in Sydney, Australia. That became highly probable when Zack Greinke left his exhibition start after four pitches Thursday with a mild right calf strain.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw watches the flight of his first career home run, starting the scoring in his own 4-0 shutout of the Giants last Opening Day.

If it becomes official, then all Kershaw has to do is maintain his pace and he could be known one day as the greatest Opening Day pitcher.

In his three Opening Day starts over the last three years, the left-hander has thrown 19 scoreless innings and the Dodgers are 3-0. That included seven innings (9 strikeouts) in a 2-1 home win over the Giants in 2011, on the way to a 21-5 record, 2.28 ERA and his first National League Cy Young Award, and then three innings (flu-ridden) in a 5-3 win at San Diego in 2012, on the way to 14-9/2.53 and Cy runnerup.

And that brings us to what  happened last April 1 at Dodger Stadium against the rival and reigning World Champion Giants, a 4-0 shutout on the way to another Cy and even clubbing his first homer for the only scoring that mattered. We’d prefer to just let Vin Scully do the talking now as we recall that Opening Day and the two curtain calls, so please watch, relive it and share:

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw

Stay tuned to dodgers.com as we wait for the eventual naming of the Dodgers’ rotation order, and we will continue to count down each day here until that Sydney opener, as we have done ever since we started 51 days out with Ichiro Suzuki. MLB Schedule | Tickets

Who should be No. 21?

23 Days – Don Mattingly & Ryne Sandberg

Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg

1984 All-Star GameDon Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg both became first-time All-Stars in 1984, playing on opposite teams that July at Candlestick Park. It began a five-year run in which each popular infielder was in the Midsummer Classic, including a classic 13-inning, 2-0 win by the NL in 1987 in Oakland, where both players started and batted second in their respective lineups. Those were their only meetings back in the day, because Mattingly and the Yankees trained in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each spring while Sandberg and the Cubs headed for Mesa, Ariz., and there was neither Interleague Play nor a World Series for either man as an active player.

Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly in July 1991 at Anaheim.

So here we are now, 23 days away from the Major League Baseball Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, Australia, and we are going to bring both icons together in our own way. It makes sense for a few reasons. One, they are both now active MLB managers, Mattingly about to manage the Dodgers in that historic Sydney series against the D-backs, and Sandberg in his first spring as Phillies skipper after taking over for Charlie Manuel in the last 42 games (20-22) last season. They will manage against each other for the first time on April 21-24 at Dodger Stadium, neither with the club for whom he was famous as a player. Secondly, they were Opening Day fixtures, autograph-friendly and highly welcomed representations of a new beginning for Yankee and Cub fans when they took the field or appeared in box scores.

And for a third reason, and maybe most importantly, they would be together right now in the Hall of Fame if there were poetic justice. Sandberg got there matter-of-factly in 2005, and oh if Mattingly could only have given his speech right before his or right afterwards. Ryno’s run of consecutive All-Star Games lasted 10 years, double that of Donnie Baseball, whose time as a player was unfortunately cut short by back troubles. They were both Most Valuable Players of their leagues and they both won nine Gold Gloves, providing pop on the other side. They were basically one-club guys the whole way. The sad truth is that for Mattingly, it was just too short a run by the average Hall voter’s standards. But do they belong together in some kind of baseball immortality, if you were a fan of that era? The question is definitely yes.

Ryne Sandberg

Ryne Sandberg in 1997 at Dodger Stadium.

So we’re doing our part here today, as we watch them prepare their NL clubs now, perhaps even to meet this October in a meaningful series. (And yes, they share a league with another No. 23 star-turned-manager, Arizona’s Kirk Gibson, making it almost a fraternity all their own.) For some perspective on just how much Mattingly and Sandberg meant to a generation of fans, long before they were managers, I thought I would ask my MLB.com colleague Gregg Klayman. Now our VP of Product Development here, Klayman is the guy who came up with such fan-favorite ideas as the annual All-Star Final Vote and MLB.com Beat the Streak. He grew up with both stars in a sense, his passion for the No. 23 only slightly divided.

“I love the fact that they’re both representing No. 23 in this countdown,” Klayman said. “When I was 12 years old and playing Strat-O-Matic baseball pretty much every single day of my life, they won co-MVPs of my league. They were both on my team that season. The problem was, they both wore 23, and we wrote their uniform numbers on the top of their cards, so one of them had to get 23. Since I was from New York, Mattingly got preference, got to wear 23, and I made Sandberg 19. I’m not really sure why I made him 19, but it was the closest number. I think Mike Schmidt had 20, Dwight Evans had 24, a lot of the numbers near there were taken. So I ended up giving him 19.

“I think they also represent the best at their position for the decade of definitely the ’80s. Sandberg’s career went a little deeper than Mattingly’s into the ’90s, too, but I think they represent a pretty good era of baseball, and it’s nice that they’re together.”

They are together now. Two class acts, inseparable in their impact back then, now teachers instead of students. Both 23 as we remember them, in home pinstripes, with Bleacher Bums or Bleacher Creatures behind them, harbingers of every spring. Tickets are now available to watch them back in uniform today. MLB Schedule | Tickets

Who should be No. 22?

24 Days – Junior Griffey

Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. prepares to launch his record-tying eight Opening Day homer in 2009.

Ken Griffey Jr. made his Major League debut for the Mariners on April 3, 1989, doubling in his first at-bat against A’s right-hander Dave Stewart. That Opening Day game in Oakland already has been highlighted once during the countdown to Sydney, back when we featured Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley at No. 43, noting Eck’s first save on the way to his team’s World Series title that year.

So now we’re looking at how that game began — and how it literally all started for one of the greatest players in Major League history. Junior would become the baseball trading card of choice with his famous Upper Deck rookie card above, and ultimately a 13-time All-Star with 630 home runs. But what made us go with him on this day, where Willie Mays — arguably the best all-around player in history, right there with The Bambino at the top of Mount Baseball — made No. 24 iconic? What about Rickey Henderson? Tony Perez? Early Wynn? Or maybe Miguel Cabrera, for a modern megastar?

We honor Junior here because of what he did an incredible 20 years almost to the day since that MLB debut. Take another look at this MLB.com video and let all those years wash over you again. . . .

It was April 6, 2009, fifth inning at Minnesota, last Opening Day ever at the Metrodome, and a 2-2 pitch from lefty Francisco Liriano. Griffey — then 39 years old, returning to his original club after a long stint with Cincinnati and then the White Sox — lined it into the seats in right. It tied the great Frank Robinson (perhaps our No. 20 in four days?) for most Opening Day homers with eight (612th overall). Said Junior, who will be eligible for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016: “It is quite an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Frank.”

Opening Day Magic. Classic Griffey.

Now we look ahead to another Opening Day in the national pastime. The 2014 Mariners open the regular season March 31 on the road against the Angels, and then the two clubs meet again in Seattle’s home opener on April 8. MLB Schedule | Tickets

Who should be No. 23?

25 Days – Tuffy & Dmitri

Tuffy Rhodes and Dmitri Young

We can’t promise that George Bell will be No. 11 when we reach that point in our Opening Day Countdown Down Under to Major League Baseball’s Opening Series in Sydney, but we invite him to join in today’s little celebration right here. Bell became the only Major Leaguer who ever swatted three homers on Opening Day when he did it for Toronto in 1988, and then two left-handed-hitting No. 25s joined him when Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes did it for the Cubs in 1994 and Dmitri Young did it for the Tigers in 2005.

Rhodes is an Opening Day legend largely because of the almost ridiculous circumstances. He hit all three of his at Wrigley Field off none other than Mets righty Dwight Gooden, who may or may not be No. 16 in our Countdown in the days ahead. (Feel free to argue for him or against him in the comments here for that honor, by the way.) The Cubs’ little-known leadoff man hit three solo shots, and the Wrigley wind was his best friend. Rhodes finished the season with eight longballs and finished his six-year career with 13 homers in 590 at-bats, or one in every 45 ABs. After that, he became a home run king . . . in Japan.

Young, a former No. 4 overall Draft pick, was a much more likely candidate for such a season entrance. It was 2005, the year the All-Star Game finally would return to Detroit, and a record crowd of 44,105 was at Comerica Park to see the Tigers host the Royals. Young, batting fifth in the Tigers’ order, took starter Jose Lima deep in the second and third, was (naturally) plunked by reliever Andy Sisco in the fifth (then scoring one of his four runs in the game), singled off Shawn Camp in the seventh, and added the pièce de résistance off Mike MacDougal in the eighth. Young homered once in every 28 at-bats in his 13-year career, finishing with 171 homers.

There were a lot of 25s to think about on this day, from Kaz Matsui homering for the Mets in 2004 on the first MLB pitch he ever faced, to sluggers Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, and we’ll such decisions all the way to the Australia. Share your thoughts here and help us plan the rest of the entries, which we try to post each midnight ET. And make your own plan for the 2014 season. MLB Schedule | Tickets

Who should be No. 24?

Update: Here’s a look at the brand-new MLB Opening Series logo. Feel free to add it to your MLB.com Blog!

MLB Opening Series

26 Days – Chase Utley

ChaseUtley

ChaseUtleySwingToday we tip our caps to Billy Williams, Wade Boggs, Boog Powell, Gates Brown, Roy Face, Joe Rudi, Amos Otis and others who have thrilled us over the years in No. 26 jerseys. And we replay what happened on Opening Day last April 1 in Atlanta, where Phillies second baseman Chase Utley not only scorched his 200th career homer over the wall in center but also tripled and added a two-run single. “That was classic chase,” teammate Ryan Howard said after the opener.

Utley, an All-Star each year from 2006-10, served notice that he was back, and indeed he was healthy enough to play his most games (139) since 2009, finishing strong with a .349 September and winding up with 18 homers and 69 RBIs.

We’re 26 days away from Major League Baseball’s Opening Series in Sydney, Australia, and the countdown will go on each day right here. Utley and the Phillies open their 2014 regular season March 31 at Texas and they open their home schedule April 7 against Milwaukee. MLB Schedule | Tickets

Who should be No. 25?

27 Days – Vlad Guerrero

Vlad Guerrero

April 5, 1999. Vlad Guerrero’s first at-bat of the season is a two-run homer off Francisco Cordova in the first inning at Pittsburgh, leading the Montreal Expos to a 9-2 victory. Guerrero goes 3-for-5 with 4 RBIs en route to his first All-Star selection.

April 3, 2000. Guerrero’s first at-bat of the season is an RBI single off Dodgers starter Kevin Brown. Guerrero then hits his first two of 44 homers that season, a 2-run shot and a solo homer — accounting for all the Montreal runs in a 10-4 loss at Olympic Stadium.

Vlad GuerreroApril 2, 2001. Top of the 10th, Expos and Cubs tied, 4-4, in front of an Opening Day crowd of 38,466 at Wrigley Field. Two out, Montreal has men at the corners. Guerrero comes to the plate. Cubs manager Don Baylor brings right-hander Todd Van Poppel in to replace Mark Fyhrie to keep it tied. Guerrero singles to center on a 3-1 pitch to drive in Jose Vidro with the eventual winning run.

April 2, 2002. Guerrero leads the Majors with an incredible 709 plate appearances in this season, the first five on this Opening Day at Montreal against the Marlins. Braden Looper comes in to protect a 6-4 Marlins lead. With two out and men at the corners, Vidro hits a two-run single to tie the score. That brings up Guerrero, who is already 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs. In the ultimate show of Opening Day respect, Marlins manager Jeff Torborg has Looper intentionally walk Guerrero to load the bases, and Orlando Cabrera promptly wins the game with a walk-off single.

You get the idea. There was a lot of that damage and disruption going on when Guerrero was in the lineup on Opening Day, and you didn’t even think about running on his cannon arm in right, either. The 2004 National League MVP finished his marvelous career with 449 homers, 2,590 hits and a 140 OPS+, helping the Rangers to a World Series in 2010, officially announcing his retirement last September after a career with the Expos, Angels, Rangers and Orioles. He turned 39 this month and is already a missed presence on the field — one of the most exciting players of his time.

Here was the first homer he ever hit, in 1996:

Here was his arm:

Angels fans will remember this one well . . .

So that’s our pick today as we are 27 days away from MLB Opening Series March 22-23 in Sydney — now inside a month away. As for a certain other Dominican who is already in the Hall of Fame, we raise our cap — and our leg kick — high on this day for the great Juan Marichal, who was 6-2 with two no-decisions in 10 Opening Days for the Giants. Carlton Fisk was a Hall of Fame fixture as 27 for Boston, so good that he wound up with a retired 72 as well with the White Sox. There was Scott Rolen and that amazing WAR, leading St. Louis to the championship in 2006. And Mike Trout, we can’t wait to see him March 31 against the visiting Mariners, now that he has one Opening Day under his belt last year.

Who should be No. 26? Leave your comments below.  MLB Schedule | Tickets

28 Days – Randy Myers & The Nasty Boys

Randy Myers

It was Tommy Herr at second base for St. Louis in three World Series during the 1980s and Wilbur Wood with four straight 20-win seasons for the White Sox. It was a pair of closers, Sparky Lyle of the Yankees and Mike Marshall of the Dodgers, winning Cy Young Awards and leading their clubs to World Series in the 1970s. It’s still Jose Molina behind the plate for someone, presently the Rays, in a long career that included an Opening Day homer off Jamie Moyer for the Angels in 2004. There’s a Hall of Famer to think about in Bert Blyleven, memories of Cesar Cedeno’s rainbow jersey, Curt Simmons and Vada Pinson, and an active star in Giants catcher Buster Posey. Narrowing the field down to one player each day here is an exercise in nostalgic fun.

Norm Charlton, Randy Myers, Rob Dibble - The Nasty BoysBut the Opening Day Countdown Down Under has our man — in this case really representing a trio — now that we are 28 days away from Major League Baseball’s Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, Australia.

Flash back to the Houston Astrodome on April 9, 1990. Lou Piniella’s Cincinnati Reds tied the score at 4-4 in the top of the sixth. Left-hander Norm Charlton came out of the bullpen for the bottom of that inning and threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Power righty Rob Dibble came in with two out in the eighth to bail Charlton out of a first-and-third jam and retire the side, and kept it scoreless through one out in the 10th. Lefty Randy Myers got Dibble out of a first-and-third jam by retiring the next two batters. Barry Larkin’s bases-loaded triple in the top of the 11th led to four runs and an 8-4 Reds triumph, and Myers finished it off to get the win.

The Nasty BoysThus was born “The Nasty Boys” — among the most effective collaborative late-inning bullpens in Major League history, if not the best. With that win, Piniella’s club proceeded to win Cincinnati’s last World Series title and did so in wire-to-wire fashion — the first National League club to do so. The same Randy Myers who won that decision and saved 31 games was the pitcher on the mound who threw the last pitch, getting Carney Lansford to foul out to Todd Benzinger as the Reds shocked the favored Oakland A’s in a sweep.

Opening Day is about possibility, and in that case it was the epitome of starting something big in a season bookended by the ultimate celebration scene. Today we honor No. 28, but really the whole Nasty Boys bunch, including No. 37 Charlton and No. 49 Dibble, a trio that was basically untouchable that postseason.

Join in the debate in the comments below as we next tackle a major question at No. 27 (do you like then or now?), and start planning your own season as we await another traditional Opening Day in Cincinnati and the possibility of another magical ride like 1990. MLB Schedule | Tickets

29 Days – Rod Carew

Rod Carew

So here’s the new definition of a “personal day”: It’s a day within our Opening Day Countdown Down Under when one particular number is personal to you. I’ve seen this from colleagues and readers along the way, and we’ll see it all the way through March 22, when Major League Baseball opens its season for the first time in Sydney, Australia. Today is my personal day.

Rod CarewRod Carew was my idol as a boy in the Midwest, and I would do anything to watch him swing a bat. On April 11, 1967, Carew was a rookie second baseman as Minnesota opened its season at Baltimore. Batting sixth in the lineup — after Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew and Bobby Allison — Carew stepped up to the left side of the plate for his first MLB at-bat. It was the second inning, and Dave McNally was on the mound for the reigning world champs, having won the Game 4 clincher the previous fall.

Rod CarewHere is exactly what that Opening Day moment brought to baseball history: Crack, single, 2-for-4, Rookie of the Year, 18  All-Star selections in his first 18 seasons (1967-78 with the Twins, ’79-84 with the Angels), 3,053 career hits, seven batting titles, 1991 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As fate would have it, I was a Giants beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News at the time of that induction weekend, had checked his name as a new Baseball Writers’ Association of America voter (still am), and that was my first journey to Cooperstown, because the Giants were there to play the Twins in an exhibition.

Rod CarewInterviewing Carew for the first time, there at the Hall that weekend, hearing his speech and thinking back over his career, watching him in so many Midsummer Classics, was the perfect alignment of one fan’s cosmos.

His bat was often described more as a magic wand, and it was, waving it wherever he wanted the ball to go. When I visit the Hall’s Gallery these days for inspiration, that is the first plaque I touch. Then Babe.

You probably can relate to this personal day in your own way. Somewhere in the remaining 28 days till Sydney very well could be your boyhood hero, or perhaps your father’s, or maybe it is your own child’s idol on a roster today. Please share, reblog, use the comments below to state your own case as we decide which Opening Day moments to honor while celebrating the return of the National Pastime and a life tradition. Who should be No. 28? MLB Schedule | Tickets – Mark Newman, MLB.com

30 Days – Orlando Cepeda

Orlando Cepeda

“Through baseball I built a name for myself,” Orlando Cepeda said 15 years ago in his Hall of Fame Induction speech, and he began building it right away. Ask Cepeda today for one hit that meant the most in his life, and he will tell you that it was his first one in the Majors, because it came in such remarkable circumstances: the Giants’ and Dodgers’ first game on the West Coast, his MLB debut.

It was April 15, 1958, and the New York Giants were now the San Francisco Giants opening their new world before 23,448 fans at Seals Stadium. The Brooklyn Dodgers were now the Los Angeles Dodgers, and on the mound for them was a blossoming star, Don Drysdale, one of many future Hall of Famers in the ballpark. Cepeda, a brute force from Puerto Rico known as the “Baby Bull,” started at first base and grounded out to third in the second inning. In the bottom of the fourth, Cepeda flied out to left.

Fortunately for the rookie, Drysdale was getting roughed up elsewhere. The righty was chased later that inning with the Giants ahead, 4-0, and charged with his fifth and sixth runs when Willie Mays singled to the right side. Then with one out in the fifth, Drysdale was out of the picture and Cepeda achieved a lasting moment against the pitcher who replaced him that game.

Orlando Cepeda“My first big-league hit, Opening Day, I hit a home run of Don Bessent,” Cepeda said told MLB.com. “My first big-league hit? Incredible. I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget that game. It was my biggest thrill, my first game in the big leagues.”

Cepeda wound up 1 for his first 17 in the Majors, so that is another reason he appreciates that first hit so much today. He recovered to be named National League Rookie of the Year that season and then was an All-Star the next six consecutive seasons. Cepeda was traded to the Cardinals for Ray Sadecki in May of 1966, and the next year batted .325 with 25 home runs and 111 RBIs in leading St. Louis to a world championship and earning NL MVP honors.

More Opening Day memories are waiting, starting with the MLB Opening Series in Sydney on March 22-23. Who should be No. 29 in our countdown? Suggest away in the comments below and make plans of your own this season. MLB Schedule | Tickets

31 Days – Mike Piazza

Mike Piazza

Mike Piazza hit 427 home runs, including a Major League-record 396 as a catcher. Looking back at his 16-year career, four of those longballs especially command our attention now on the Opening Day Countdown Down Under blog, which enthusiastically tips its cap to No. 31 legends like Greg Maddux, Fergie Jenkins and Dave Winfield, as well as returning Red Sox ace Jon Lester.

Piazza already had made it to six straight All-Star Games during his early years with the Dodgers, but he became an Opening Day tour de force in the second half of his career once he got to the Mets. When he swung, it felt like Opening Day, with electricity. He went deep four times in a span of seven years from 2000-06. Here’s the rundown:

2000, Cubs at Mets: They opened that season in Tokyo, and 55,000 fans at the dome there saw Piazza bash a two-run homer in the eighth inning off reliever Brian Williams. It was a 5-3 loss, but it got the ball rolling toward the Mets’ first National League pennant since their 1986 title. Who can forget Piazza vs. Roger Clemens that fall?

2001, Mets at Braves. Everyone remembers the homer Piazza hit in the first MLB game after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some consider that their greatest baseball memory. But do you remember what happened when Piazza first swung a bat that same season? It was a two-run homer off future Hall of Famer (and Countdown Down Under veteran) Tom Glavine, and the difference in a 6-4 Mets win. By the way, that photo you see at the top of this post is Piazza rounding the bases after one of two homers he hit against the same Braves the following week at Shea Stadium in the Mets’ home opener.

2004, Mets at Braves. Another Opening Day homer at Atlanta, this time a solo shot in the third inning off Russ Ortiz in a 7-2 Mets win. That made it three Opening Day homers for the Mets in five years, worthy of club lore.

2006, Giants at Padres. Piazza returned to Southern California and wore No. 33 in his only San Diego season, as the Padres had retired Winfield’s No. 31 jersey in 2001. But Piazza made his customary splash. In his Padres debut, he slugged a solo homer off Jason Schmidt in the second inning at Petco Park, providing San Diego’s first run of the year. Here’s the familiar jog:

Mike Piazza

Opening Day is just one of 162, but it is more food for thought for Hall of Fame voters next winter.