And here we are in the single digits. The land of baseball immortals. If you are an active player to be mixed in for the remainder of our daily countdown to Major League Baseball’s Opening Series on March 22-23 in Sydney, Australia, you better be Hall-bound.
We begin the royal rollout at No. 9 with the best hitter in baseball history. Ted Williams began his book, “The Science of Hitting,” with these words: “Hitting a baseball — I’ve said it a thousand times — is the single most difficult thing to do in sport.” And he began his Red Sox career — one that would last from 1939-60, with long pauses for war service — by ripping a double on Opening Day. Continue reading
Today we tip our cap to Nolan Ryan, Rollie Fingers, Kirby Puckett, Fernando Valenzuela and current Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, all greats who have shared 34. But Baseball is all about continuation and we are picking up where we left off here at the Opening Day Countdown Down Under, especially to get through a winter like this one.
David Ortiz was handed a World Series Most Valuable Player trophy on the last night of live Major League Baseball, and he returns for a 12th season in No. 34 as the reigning World Champions open the 2014 regular season March 31 at Baltimore. Big Papi has homered four times on Opening Day. The first two were back-to-back with the Twins in 2001-02, the third was a two-run shot off Kevin Milwood in a 2006 Red Sox win at Texas, and the fourth was this blast off Darren Oliver that tied the score at 5-5 three years ago at Texas:
Take one look back at a postseason run for the ages, including a .688 average in the Fall Classic against St. Louis. . . .
Curt Schilling started seven Opening Days, five with the Phillies and then two more later to end his career with Boston. He was at his absolute best in consecutive road openers for the Phillies from 1997-98 — not coincidentally his first two All-Star seasons — combining in those two season debuts for 16 shutout innings, four hits and 20 strikeouts. Let’s take a closer look at both:
April 1, 1997: That Phillies club opened with a 3-0 victory over the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine, Schilling’s greatest Opening Day effort. The only ball hit by Los Angeles in the air out of the infield was a lineout to left by Todd Zeile in the fifth inning. The two hits were grounders that got through. Ricky Bottalico closed it, 1-2-3. The 11 strikeouts by Schilling sent him well on his way to a season total of 319, and you can watch two videos here as he reached 300 for the first time and then set the National League record for most strikeouts by a right-hander in a season:
March 31, 1998: You’ll never forget this one if you were a fan of either the Phillies or the Mets that season. Schilling again went eight scoreless, this time striking out nine, locked in a duel with Bobby Jones (6 IP) and the Mets’ bullpen. This time, Schilling was long gone when the game was decided. It was still 0-0 in the bottom of the 14th when Alberto Castillo delivered a pinch-single to right off Bottalico to score Brian McRae.
Later that season, Schilling reached 300 strikeouts for the second year in a row, and you can watch that one as well as he throws gas by Kevin Orie of the Marlins:
Schilling made his final Opening Day start in 2007 at the age of 40, taking the loss opposite Gil Meche at Kansas City, but he would end the year in a style, getting the W in his finale. It happened to be Game 2 at Fenway Park during the Red Sox’ sweep of Colorado for a world championship on the way out.
The Countdown crew sends our best wishes to the Schilling family as he takes that same Opening Day bulldog mentality into his current fight against cancer that he made public last week. “I’ll embrace this fight, just like the rest of them,” Schilling said, “with resolute faith and head on.” He underwent surgery on Monday, according to his daughter Gabby, who tweeted that it “went really well” and that he is in recovery.
Everyone knows what happened when Dennis Eckersley met Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series. But for Eckersley, the first regular season appearance after that was truthfully more defining in a Hall of Fame career.
Flash back to April 3, 1989, Seattle at Oakland in front of 46,163 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, as it was named then. Mark McGwire’s three-run homer in the first had given Dave Stewart an early lead, and Tony La Russa’s A’s were clinging to a 3-2 lead entering the ninth. Enter the Eck. The right-hander got Jeffrey Leonard to ground out to third, Greg Briley to fly out to left and Dave Valle to fly out to right. Back to business as usual.
It was the first of 51 appearances that season for Oakland, resulting in 33 saves and one of his three top-5 American League Most Valuable Player finishes, and an 0.607 WHIP that would be the lowest in a 24-year Hall of Fame career. Most importantly, that Opening Day set in motion the A’s last World Series title — a sweep of the Giants in the earthquake-marred Bay Bridge Series — and Eckersley’s only world champion ring.
In fact, Eck’s recovery from the Miracle Homer of ’88 was so complete and satisfying, he even covered first base to record the final putout of ’89, finishing with his trademark roundhouse air-punch:
Eckersley made two Opening Day starts for Cleveland (1976-77) and five for Boston (1979-83). Do people ask him every year about his pitch sequence to Gibson? Yes. Should people watch these videos to remind themselves why the Miracle Homer meant the significance of a mosquito on an elephant to an MLB legend in the long haul? Yes.