Dwight Gooden stopped by our MLB.com studios in NYC recently, not long after this countdown began to Major League Baseball’s Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, Australia. I told him we eventually would run into a tough choice at No. 16, where he and Hall of Famer Whitey Ford were a pair of New York legends at the top of the consideration list. Here’s what Doc said about making his first Opening Day start for the Mets in 1985, at only 20 years old in a Cy Young season:
“It was very special to myself, obviously being my first one, being at Shea Stadium. It was Gary Carter’s first game as a Met, and he hit that game-winning home run in the 10th inning. That one sticks out more than anything.
“Once you make the team, you always dream about pitching Opening Day. You have all the ceremony, the World Series atmosphere for that one day. It’s the beginning of a new season. Leading up to the game, the drumming going, you’re trying to keep your emotions ready, and the lineups are introduced on the field, all the pregame ceremony stuff, it’s just a great, great thing to have, and it’s the best part of the season outside of the World Series.”
With that introduction, we fast-forward nearly three decades to 2014. Of all the things we are anticipating in this regular season, probably none is more exciting than the first Opening Day start by Jose Fernandez. The similarities to Gooden’s first Opening Day start are spectacular.
Fernandez is 21, ace of the Marlins staff. Like Gooden, he is making this assignment after having already been an All-Star, National League Rookie of the Year and a top-three Cy Young ballot choice in his first season, recording double-digit wins and electrifying crowds.
Fernandez had a 2.19 ERA, 0.979 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 ratio his first season, compared to Gooden’s 2.60, 1.073 and 11.4, respectively. Each righty led the NL in his first year in hits per 9 innings, Fernandez with just 5.8 hits allowed per game compared to Gooden’s 6.6. While Gooden pitched for a Mets club that was expected by many to contend — winning it all in 1986 — it still will be interesting to see whether his second-year growth is anywhere near that of “Special K,” who followed up his first Opening Day start by going 24-4 and winning the Cy.
On Wednesday, Fernandez whetted our appetites again, holding the Mets to two hits in 3 1/3 shutout innings in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Fernandez is on track to make his Opening Day start on March 31 at home against Colorado, and what a night that will be at Marlins Park. There is a Fireworks Spectacular after the game, there is an All You Can Eat Mondays special still available, and a special pitcher from Cuba will be on the mound.
A new season is just 16 days away, and with that special nod here to Ford, the Yankees’ Chairman of the Board, winningest World Series pitcher and Opening Day fixture, on this day we are taking a look at youngsters past and present, with an NL East excitement level that is sky-high. MLB Schedule | Tickets
Who should be No. 15?
While you’re still looking for Major League Baseball’s next .400 hitter, now is a good time to let you know that Todd Helton hit exactly .400 on Opening Day. So we tip our hat to him, 17 days away from the MLB Opening Series March 22 in Sydney.
The Rockies will open the regular season March 31 at Miami, and it will mark the first time since 1997 that Helton, now retired, has not been in Colorado’s starting lineup. That was the year that Helton was an August call-up. After that, he was a warrior who proceeded to put up these Opening Day numbers, mostly having to begin on the road:
24-60, 9 runs, 5 RBIs, 11 doubles.
During that time, the Rockies went 9-7, playing 11 of their 16 openers on the road due to the Denver climate. His performances included game-winners, usually an RBI double in there somewhere, steadiness, and a 4-for-4 performance in a 2004 victory at Arizona, with the first three hits coming against D-backs fireballer Randy Johnson. Highlights:
98 – 2-for-4, RBI, 2 doubles, won at eventual NL champ Padres.
99 – 0-for-5, won at Padres.
00 – 1-for-4, 2-0 loss at Greg Maddux and Braves.
01 – 1-for-2, 2 runs, 2 BB, 8-0 win vs. Cardinals.
02 – 2-for-4, loss at Cardinals.
03 – 2-for-5, 1 run, double, loss at Astros.
04 – 4-for-4, 2 run, double, 6-2 win at D-backs.
05 – 1-for-4, 1 run, 1 RBI, 12-10 walk-off win vs. Padres.
06 – 1-for-4, 1 RBI, double, 3-2 win vs. D-backs. That RBI double off Terry Mulholland in the bottom of the eighth was the big hit, tying it at 2-2 and forcing extras, won by Rockies in 11th.
07 – 2-for-4, double, 8-6 loss vs. D-backs.
08 – 2-for-4, double, run, 2-1 win at Cardinals. His double in eighth was the big hit, leading to the first run and then him scoring decisive run as they scored both runs that inning.
09 – 1-for-4, 9-8 loss at D-backs.
10 – 2-for-5, one run, double, 5-3 win at Brewers.
11 – 2-for-4, 1 run, 1 RBI, 7-6 loss vs. D-backs.
12 – 1-for-4, RBI double, 5-3 win at Astros.
13 – 0-for-3, walk, 5-4 loss at Brewers.
His last Opening Day ended a personal 13-year hitting streak on Colorado curtain lifters. Now the Rockies move on in a new era, Justin Morneau their presumptive first baseman. It is a good time to pause and reflect on The Toddfather’s career, and as the debate begins over whether he will be Cooperstown-worthy, with his jersey number matching the number of years he spent with the same club, don’t forget to include his general Opening Day magnificence in the mix. It is just 1 of 162, to be sure, but it is the day that takes the first foot forward and with him it usually was a positive one. MLB Schedule | Tickets
The next one is a doozy. Who should be No. 16?
Four days ago, we featured Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers at 22 days remaining in our countdown to Major League Baseball’s Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, Australia. That was an easy one. A shutout and a decisive homer last April 1, too obvious.
But maybe you remember that on the other side of that Dodgers-Giants rivalry game, Matt Cain made his first Opening Day start in the Majors. And when he left after six innings, it was a scoreless tie. Granted, Cain pitched out of trouble a lot for the Giants that day, but he got the outs when he had to and he was able to experience something he had been wondering about.
“You’ve seen some guys do it, and you always kind of wonder what it feels like,” Cain said that day. “There definitely is a lot of hype going on with it, a bit of overreporting, kind of. But that’s the fun part leading up to the first game.”
Now another Opening Day awaits. Cain figures to be a lot better than 8-10 this season, having finished strong after a disappointing first half last season. Giants fans are counting on it. The Giants open the 2014 regular season on March 31 at Arizona to start a four-game series, and then they visit the Dodgers for a weekend series on that trip. The home-opener at AT&T Park is April 8 against the D-backs, and more memories are waiting to be made.
Who should be No. 17? Tell us in the comments below.
We’re just 19 days away from the Major League Baseball Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, Australia, and in the course of this entire countdown that started 51 days out with Ichiro, there is really only one Opening Day performance in the history of baseball that holds a place atop the mountain.
“It means a lot of luck,” Bob Feller told MLB.com writer Anthony Castrovince in the spring of 2010, when asked about what was then the 70th anniversary of the only Opening Day no-hitter, hurled by him in 1940. Just months after that interview, we sadly lost the great right-hander, who spent his entire 18-year career with Cleveland, sacrificing four years to military service. Watch him explain what happened:
There were only about 14,000 fans at old Comiskey Park on that April 16, due to a blustery day in Chicago. But the elements actually helped Feller, then just 21 and already with 55 wins under his belt. He abandoned the curve and relied on his legendary fastball, striking out eight and walking five in a 1-0 victory over the White Sox. Feller escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second and recalled, “After that, I started pitching better.”
Feller made a club-record seven Opening Day starts for the Indians, and his first was a year before that gem, in 1939. You could almost argue that his best Opening Day performance actually may have been that first one. He struck out 10, walked only two and allowed only three hits in a complete game victory over Detroit at home, one of the hits a solo homer in the sixth by Bernie McCosky. But history mainly recalls one special Opening Day start a year later. And his legacy carries on, an autograph that sits on this particular writer’s office desk, representing the first signature he ever got as a boy. Rapid Robert loved to sign for you. We’ll never forget.
The 2014 Indians open their regular season March 31 at Oakland, and then face Minnesota in their home opener April 4 at Progressive Field. What memories are in store this season? MLB Schedule | Tickets
Who should be No. 18?
You probably already know that on April 8, 1975, Frank Robinson, presently Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball development, became baseball’s first black manager. It was a moment that another Robinson, Jackie, the first black MLB player, always wanted to see, but it came nearly three years after the latter’s passing. Frank Robinson was player-manager for the Indians that day in a 5-3 victory over the Yankees, in front of 56,715 at Municipal Stadium.But did you know this: Robinson homered in his first at-bat of that game, a solo shot off Doc Medich in the first. It was a 2-2 fastball low and away. He tipped his cap reaching the plate, saying later that was for his wife, who was seated with their son and daughter.
“Any home run is a thrill, but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill,” Robinson said of what was then his 575th of 586 career homers. He would play one more season after that one.
Of course, there were many more memorable Opening Day moments for Robinson, having won Most Valuable Players awards in both leagues, first with Cincinnati and then with Baltimore. He calls it nearly impossible to choose one favorite hit out of his 2,943 career hits, but here is one story he told me. It happened for Cincinnati in 1956:
“My first one. My first hit in the big leagues. Double off the center-field wall against the St. Louis Cardinals, playing against Stan Musial. It was exciting for me. Opening Day. Never forget the first one. You always remember the first one. You always hope a lot more are going to come after that, but you’re not sure.”
I asked who was pitching, and he said, “Vinegar Bend Mizell. Told you, you’ll never forget it. He became a Congressman later.”
The Opening Day Countdown Down Under blog would be remiss without mentioning greats like Mike Schmidt, Lou Brock and Don Sutton here, and let’s not forget a moment at Arizona in 2001 when a batter and catcher were together in a Game 7 moment of history, both wearing No. 20, and their names were Luis Gonzalez and Jorge Posada. Frank White . . . Kevin Youkilis . . . the memories of seasons past are rich, and we prepare to welcome a new one starting March 22 in Sydney. MLB Schedule | Tickets
Who should be No. 19?
On three straight Opening Days, from 1958-60, No. 21 was on the mound and at the plate, both on the way to the Hall of Fame. They were two baseball immortals: the winningest left-hander in Major League Baseball history (363-245) against the an all-around star who also would become the face of humanitarian greatness. Warren Spahn vs. Roberto Clemente, lefty vs. righty.
April 15, 1958: Opening Day at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, where the defending World Champion Braves were hosting the Pirates. In the top of the eighth inning, with the Braves protecting a 2-1 lead, Clemente, a 24-year-old rising talent from Puerto Rico, singled off Spahn, the reigning National League Cy Young winner, for his third hit of the day to drive in Bob Skinner. Spahn would go nine innings, and the game would go 14, finally won by the Pirates, 4-3.
April 10, 1959: This was technically Opening Day for Milwaukee, but not for Pittsburgh, which visited Cincinnati a day earlier and now was playing its home opener at Forbes Field. This one was vintage Spahn, a seven-hit shutout and an 8-0 rout. Clemente, now up to No. 2 in the order, was 2-for-4.
April 12, 1960: Now we’re back in Milwaukee, Spahn opening against Pittsburgh for the third year in a row, again tested by the rising talent from Puerto Rico, who will become an All-Star for the first time in this season, starting a 13-year streak in which he was selected 12 times. For the third year in a row, Clemente has a multi-hit game against Spahn. The Braves’ ace goes 7 1/3, gets the no-decision in this one, and it’s a 4-3 Milwaukee win.
From 1958-60, no one could have known the full significance of what they were seeing. In 1973, Spahn was inducted into the Hall of Fame. We only wish Clemente could have made it to another Opening Day that same year.
As you look ahead to the start of a new season now only three weeks away in Sydney, Australia, take a look back at the video footage of two greats in their glory, and more fully appreciate the tradition that is the national pastime. . . .
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.
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:
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?
Don 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.
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.
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?
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?
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!