You never know what the first day of a Major League Baseball season will bring.
On April 27, 1995 — a late start after the prolonged labor strife — the Indians opened their season at Texas. In the very first inning, Omar Vizquel was charged for two errors on one play. Will Clark reached first on Vizquel’s error at short, and Vizquel was charged for a second error on the throw, which allowed Jeff Frye to score. Just think, one inning into a season and one of the best shortstops in history already had two errors.
Well, things sort of turned around. The Indians won that game, 11-6, they won the American League pennant and reached their first World Series since 1954, and Vizquel won his third of an eventual 11 Gold Gloves. He finished the season with nine errors, so two of the nine came in the first moments of a season. Vizquel owns the highest all-time career fielding percentage (.985) among big league shortstops (minimum 1000 games) and ranks first in career games played as a shortstop (2,709), having played 24 seasons in the bigs. Funny how things work out.
Today as we countdown to 13 days until the MLB Opening Series on March 22 in Sydney, we remember the Venezuelan who played 24 seasons, mostly in the No. 13 for Cleveland. He opens this season on the Tigers’ coaching staff. Here’s a look back at his career, as you plan your own season. MLB Schedule | Tickets
Who should be No. 12?
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?
Eddie Murray played in 3,026 games over 21 years in The Show and wore No. 33 for all of them, and the very first time was Opening Day of 1977 for the Orioles in front of 31,307 at old Memorial Stadium. There were future Hall of Famers all over the place. One was Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, who immediately penciled in the young switch-hitter from Los Angeles as his No. 5 hitter. Jim Palmer and Bert Blyleven dueled on the mound that day. Gaylord Perry was on the Rangers’ staff, and Brooks Robinson was a Baltimore reserve in the sunset season of his career.
Murray was 1 for 4 against Blyleven. After being retired his first two times up in the Major League debut, Murray slapped a single that led to the Orioles’ only run in a 2-1 loss.
For a similar theme, fast-forward five years at the same ballpark: April 5, 1982. Murray was one of three future Hall of Famers in the lineup as the Royals visited the Orioles. The other two included a young Baltimore teammate named Cal Ripken Jr., who was making his first Opening Day appearance after a partial season in 1981, and George Brett on the Kansas City side. Murray hit one of his 504 career homers that day, and was the exclamation mark on a huge day for the Orioles. The first baseman slugged a grand slam off Dennis Leonard in the third inning, turning a 2-1 lead into a romp.
After 12 years in Baltimore, Murray went on to play for the Dodgers, Mets, Indians, Orioles, Angels and Dodgers, in order. Every Opening Day, you expected to see Murray somewhere, and in a leading role. That single off Blyleven was his first of 3,255 hits, and that homer off Leonard was one of 504. Only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron had reached the 3,000 and 500 benchmarks before, and no one ever played first base than Murray by the time he was done. In 2003, Murray was elected to the Hall of Fame — joining his former Locke High School teammate, Ozzie Smith, and the familiar cheers of “EDDIE! EDDIE!” rang out, as they had on Opening Days past. As you settle into the return of players to Spring Training, flash back to the days of Eddie:
Who should be No. 32 in our Opening Day Countdown Down Under? That promises to be a suspenseful one, if you’ve done your homework or recall some of the candidates. Leave suggestions in the comments plan your own 2014 season as the Orioles prepare to open theirs on March 31 against Boston at Camden Yards. MLB Schedule | Tickets
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
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.