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?
Mike Piazza hit 427 home runs, including a Major League-record 396 as a catcher. Looking back at his 16-year career, four of those longballs especially command our attention now on the Opening Day Countdown Down Under blog, which enthusiastically tips its cap to No. 31 legends like Greg Maddux, Fergie Jenkins and Dave Winfield, as well as returning Red Sox ace Jon Lester.
Piazza already had made it to six straight All-Star Games during his early years with the Dodgers, but he became an Opening Day tour de force in the second half of his career once he got to the Mets. When he swung, it felt like Opening Day, with electricity. He went deep four times in a span of seven years from 2000-06. Here’s the rundown:
2000, Cubs at Mets: They opened that season in Tokyo, and 55,000 fans at the dome there saw Piazza bash a two-run homer in the eighth inning off reliever Brian Williams. It was a 5-3 loss, but it got the ball rolling toward the Mets’ first National League pennant since their 1986 title. Who can forget Piazza vs. Roger Clemens that fall?
2001, Mets at Braves. Everyone remembers the homer Piazza hit in the first MLB game after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some consider that their greatest baseball memory. But do you remember what happened when Piazza first swung a bat that same season? It was a two-run homer off future Hall of Famer (and Countdown Down Under veteran) Tom Glavine, and the difference in a 6-4 Mets win. By the way, that photo you see at the top of this post is Piazza rounding the bases after one of two homers he hit against the same Braves the following week at Shea Stadium in the Mets’ home opener.
2004, Mets at Braves. Another Opening Day homer at Atlanta, this time a solo shot in the third inning off Russ Ortiz in a 7-2 Mets win. That made it three Opening Day homers for the Mets in five years, worthy of club lore.
2006, Giants at Padres. Piazza returned to Southern California and wore No. 33 in his only San Diego season, as the Padres had retired Winfield’s No. 31 jersey in 2001. But Piazza made his customary splash. In his Padres debut, he slugged a solo homer off Jason Schmidt in the second inning at Petco Park, providing San Diego’s first run of the year. Here’s the familiar jog:
Opening Day is just one of 162, but it is more food for thought for Hall of Fame voters next winter.
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
“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
Tom Glavine will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, and his 305-win career also will be remembered for his share of Opening Day starts and success in that assignment. The left-hander made three of them for the Braves (going 2-1) and then another four for the Mets (3-1), and in his case you never forget your first.
On April 7, 1992, Glavine hurled a two-hit shutout for Atlanta at Houston, a 2-0 victory. He allowed a single to Steve Finley in the first, a single to Pete Incaviglia in the second, and no hits after that. How good was Glavine that day? He singled off Pete Harnisch in the top of the eighth and scored the only run that mattered, on Terry Pendleton’s sac fly. Ron Gant followed with an RBI double to finish the scoring, and Glavine would strike out four of the last six Astros and finish off the opener by inducing Jeff Bagwell to fly to center.
Glavine was coming off a Cy Young season, in the middle of a three-year run of 20-win seasons, and it was the dawn of a National League dynasty in Atlanta. The Braves were coming off their World Series loss to Minnesota in seven and bound for another World Series against Toronto that fall.
The defending National League East champions open the 2014 regular season March 31 at Milwaukee, and then the home opener at Turner Field is April 8 against the Mets. Who should be No. 46 in our countdown? MLB Schedule | Order Tickets