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?
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?
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.
But 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.
Thus 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
“Where can you start?” Tom Seaver asked at the beginning of his 1992 Hall of Fame Induction speech, and we will of course start on Opening Day. He holds the all-time record with 16 Opening Day starts, going 6-0 with five no-decisions for the Mets, 0-1 with two no-decisions for the Reds and 1-1 for the White Sox. In 1983, Seaver returned to his original club in Queens and that day tied Walter Johnson’s record of 14 such assignments, another affirmation of Tom Terrific’s place in history.
If there is one Seaver Opening Day memory, you probably would get a wide range of answers from fans of that generation who still tell the stories today. Seaver was Opening Day. For the Opening Day Countdown Down Under, we are going to honor No. 41 on 41 days till Sydney by remembering a three-year stretch from 1973-75 that always featured future Hall of Famers Steve Carlton vs. Seaver — a Lefty vs. Righty tradition of Cy Young aces.
In ’73, when Carlton was coming off a Cy season, Seaver got the better, throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings and backed by two Cleon Jones homers in a 3-0 Mets win, en route to an eventual National League pennant for the Amazins and the Cy for Seaver. In ’74, what would have been a three-year winning streak for Seaver vs. the Phillies on Opening Day was ruined at Philadelphia when Tug McGraw blew the save and Mike Schmidt hit a two-run walk-off shot. Then came the rubber game of the match in ’75, another Cy season for Seaver.
It was a classic duel, both starters going the distance. Carlton gave up four hits — including a solo homer by Dave Kingman in his Mets debut — and struck out six. Seaver scattered six hits and struck out nine. Each had given up a single run entering the bottom of the ninth. Carlton gave up a leadoff single to Felix Millan and then walked John Milner. That brought up cleanup man Joe Torre, who also was making his first Mets appearance after being acquired from St. Louis in a trade for Tommy Moore and Ray Sadecki. Torre’s walk-off single made him an instant New York favorite (and a portent for future popularity in the Big Apple), and helped further Seaver’s reputation as the guy who usually got it started the right way in a baseball season.
During that stretch from 1968-77, Seaver started every Opening Day for the Mets. It is how life always began back then, and new traditions are established by generations along the way. The 2014 Mets open the season March 31 at Citi Field against Washington. MLB Schedule | Order Tickets