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.
In honor of his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, the Opening Day Countdown Down Under blog is recognizing Frank Thomas as we reach 35 days until Major League Baseball’s Opening Series March 22 at Sydney. There are three things in particular we wanted to share about the Big Hurt on the first day of a season:
1. Amazingly, he played in 14 consecutive Opening Day games from 1991-2004 and every one of them was on the road. Major League Baseball typically scheduled the White Sox in a more favorable climate for early spring, meaning White Sox fans always had to follow Thomas in an opener via broadcast unless they traveled with the club. He did not play in the 2005 opener when the club finally opened at home en route to a title.
2. Thomas hit safely in each Opening Day appearance during that White Sox run except 1993, when he was 0 for 3 but walked twice and scored once in a 10-5 win at Minnesota. He was 19 for 46 (.413) with two homers, 13 runs and seven RBIs on Opening Day with the White Sox.
3. Now for the real reason we chose Thomas over Phil Niekro or Justin Verlander for today’s post. He homered off Randy Johnson on Opening Day — not once, but twice. Ten years apart with two different teams. The first one was on the first pitch Thomas saw in 1996 at Seattle. The second was a decade later in his first at-bat for Oakland, with Big Unit pitching for the Yankees. Thanks to the MLB.com video crew for unearthing this footage, so you can see them for yourself:
Who should follow Thomas at 34 Days in our countdown? Keep coming back as we add a new Opening Day moment each midnight ET on the way to Sydney and plan for your season at the ballpark. MLB Schedule | 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.