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?
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!
Camden Yards changed the game in Major League Baseball, ushering in an era of retro-modern ballparks and ultimately transforming most of today’s venues. So for Opening Day claims to fame, Rick Sutcliffe could simply point to April 6, 1992, when he followed up President George H.W. Bush’s ceremonial first by pitch by throwing the first real pitch in the history of the Orioles’ current home — on the way to a 2-0 shutout against Cleveland. Let’s start with a quick remembrance of that outing to equip you with a potential trivia stumper for your friends, complete with a look at his ’92 Opening Day delivery pictured here and the video below:
Of course, we’re here for more than trivia assistance. The Opening Day Countdown Down Under wayback machine is celebrating the essence of Opening Day through the jersey numbers of yore, and we’re going a little more old-school than that for No. 40.
This one’s for Cubbie fans.
When you think of Sutcliffe, who made nine overall Opening Day starts in his career, you probably think of the right-hander (and current broadcaster) who wore No. 40 for Chicago and so often walked off the mound after the top of the seventh to segue into Harry Caray’s rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” up in the press box. It was a way of life, as sure as Cubs on WGN, and Sutcliffe started each Opening Day for the Cubs from 1985-89.
Take a close look at April 9, 1985. There were still no lights at Wrigley Field then (not until ’88). Sutcliffe was the man in the NL. In ’84, he had come over to Chicago in a seven-player trade from Cleveland that sent Joe Carter to the Tribe, and Sutcliffe had promptly gone an unconscious 16-1 to lead the Cubs to within one win of a World Series berth. Sutcliffe, 20-6 overall that season and the NL Cy Young Award winner, even had knocked one out of the entire ballpark to help his own cause against San Diego in that National League Championship Series, as you can see in this MLB.com video:
Now it was his first Opening Day as a Cub, and Sutcliffe did not disappoint the capacity crowd in the Friendly Confines. He nursed a 2-0 lead over the Pirates into the eighth inning, finally tiring and being replaced by Lee Smith after giving up a Jason Thompson RBI single. Big Lee closed the deal, and it was a happy opener at Wrigley.
The 2014 Cubs open the season March 31 at Pittsburgh, and their home opener is April 4 against the Phillies. Who should be No. 39 in our countdown? Suggest away in the comments below. MLB Schedule | Order Tickets