April 2008

Mile High City

Once upon a time, a ballpark stashed away in the lower downtown area of a city built a mile above sea level played host to a different brand of baseball. In this park, line drives ricocheted off bats into expansive green gaps, twelve-to-six curve balls-instead of intimidating batters into jelly-legged stances-floated enticingly into sweet hitting zones, and lazy fly balls carried, and carried, and then carried some more to nestle or thud beyond the outfield fence. In 1996, at Coors Field, all of these moments were taking place with mind-numbing frequency. In 1996, the home ballpark for the Colorado Rockies witnessed a total of 1217 runs-an average of 15 runs a game. In 1996, 271 home run runs (270 traditional long-balls and one of the inside-the-park variety) were tallied inside this second-year stadium. Opponents hit .304 with a .501 slugging percentage when visiting Coors Field. But those numbers seemed pedestrian when compared to what the Blake Street Bombers totaled when they had last-ups. In 1996, the Rockies hit .343 and slugged .579 at their home park. In a way, the Rockies turned into a roster of Rogers Hornsbys when they played at Coors Field. Dante Bichette. Andres Galarraga. Vinny Castilla. Larry Walker. Ellis Burks. These were some of the names penciled into the lineup cards for the Rockies that season, forcing opposing pitchers to check their itineraries for the first plane out of Colorado.

Hideo Nomo as a Kansas City Royal in 2008 (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, a Japanese-born pitcher arrived in the United States and with a twisting, halting, springing windup, began flinging split-fingered pitches with devastating effect. He threw five shutout innings and allowed one hit with seven strikeouts in his Major League debut. A month-and-a-half later, he struck out 16 Pirates. On July 11, he started the 1995 All-Star game for the National League and struck out Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, and Albert Belle during his two scoreless innings. Hideo Nomo emerged as the conductor of a symphony whose defining piece of music was titled “Nomo-Mania.” The twist of the delivery, the splitter that traveled on a even plane for 59 feet and then dropped like a bowling ball hurtling into the gutter, the stoic attention on his battery mate when perched on the rubber, the gleeful joy expressed by the widening smile at the end of any of his 13 wins in 1995-these were the elements that transformed Hideo Nomo from litmus test and curio to one of the most dominating and captivating pitchers in the Major Leagues. In 1995, opponents amassed a .556 OPS when they faced Hideo Nomo, basically turning into a team of Mark Belangers when they stood in the box against number 16 from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1995 & 1996, Hideo Nomo dominated like few others could. He, along with the Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown, reduced hitters to mere accessories in a continual game of pitch and catch, and transformed each stadium into an account book for innumerable swings, misses, weak replies, and trudges back to the dugout. Each stadium that is, except for Coors Field. Through the first 10 months of Hideo Nomo’s career, he pitched two games in Colorado, and the aggregate results suggested that he, like any other superhero, was not immune to certain forces of nature. Here is Nomo’s combined line from his first two starts at Coors Field:

  • 9.2 Innings Pitched
  • 18 Hits
  • 12 Earned Runs
  • 5 Home Runs
  • 11.17 ERA

Once upon a time during a cold, rainy September night in Colorado, 15-game-winner Hideo Nomo walked slowly toward the mound and faced his own version of kryptonite. The Dodgers entered the contest with 85 victories and held a tenuous lead in the National League West, a half-game ahead of the Padres and six-and-half games in front of the 79-win, third-place Rockies. Nomo peered in for the first sign of the night and began his twisting, then halting, then springing motion toward the plate. Eric Young, standing in the right-handed side of the batter’s box, swung just a tad late on the fastball running low and away, and lifted a fly ball toward right-center. A moment to wait…and then exhale. For this was Coors Field, and any fly ball lifted toward a gap in the outfield could begin a rally. But on this night, in the cold and damp air, Wayne Kirby moved toward his left and in between drops of rain, accepted the ball into his glove.

Every ballgame tells its own story. Some burst early, taking on the pace and associated pulse-beat of a track meet, where hitters become base-runners with alarming frequency. The slugfest. Others seemingly glide along on an uninterrupted, repeating rhythmic course only to be pierced by the abrupt crack, roar, and rising tension. The pitcher’s duel. And some meander here and there; they pick up themes and then discard them after a quick sniff, preferring to settle into an evolving pattern that reveals itself more sharply with each passing inning. In the early innings on September 17, 1996 in Colorado, the game seemed to follow the traditional Coors-Field template: the Dodgers scored in the second and third innings and a third of the way through the game, held a 3-0 lead on the home team. The Rockies had threatened in the first and second, thanks to walks and stolen bases, but they hadn’t pushed across a single run. And they still didn’t have a hit. Curiously, since the beginning of the second inning, Nomo had pitched exclusively from the stretch. Due to the rain, Nomo had decided that his full windup would be affected by the wet conditions on the mound, and so he minimized and reduced his unique approach. But neither the rain, nor the cold, nor the ballpark, nor the abrupt change in motion would aid the Rockies on this autumn-like evening. Through four innings, Colorado still didn’t have a hit. When they failed to get a base-runner on in the bottom of the fifth inning, the game became official. And the tension became real.

The tension, of course, would build through the latter part of the game. The contest would become less and less about a pennant race. When the Dodgers came to bat in the top halves of innings, opportunities for rest and relaxation arrived. And then, in the bottom frames, the attention would focus squarely on the right-hander walking to the mound. Always the same measured pace. The warm-up pitches proceeding with regularity while the pulse inside the stadium quickened. The final toss, with the baseball traveling from mound, to plate, to second baseman covering at second, to the shortstop, to the third baseman, and finally back to the pitcher. A strikeout, lineout, and fly ball to center told the story of the bottom of the seventh. The ball didn’t leave the infield in the eighth. And then suddenly, miraculously, Hideo Nomo stood three outs away from a no-hitter. At Coors Field. Against the Blake Street Bombers. In the ninth, a couple of groundouts to second brought Ellis Burks to the plate. Burks-putting the finishing brushstrokes on one of the all-time fun seasons in baseball history-had lined out deep to right (instigating another of those deep breath, hold, wait, exhale moments), walked, and chopped back to Nomo. Hitless, but still hitting over .340 on the season. I’ll let Vin Scully recount the rest of the story, for he can do it much better than I.

“He is one out away, and Ellis Burks, the National League player of the week, is standing in Nomo’s way of a no-hitter.

Burks is the other player to come close to breaking the no-hitter. In the sixth inning, he hit a come-backer, and Nomo reached up and grabbed it and threw him out. And now the picture will tell the story-Ahh, shut up.

How does this sound in Japanese? Ken Fukuhara and Masanori Murakami…”

Note: Scully then stayed quiet and listeners got to hear a couple of moment’s worth of the two gentlemen calling the game for broadcast in Japan. Scully resumed the call after Burks fouled off a pitch.

“…One ball and one strike. On deck, Dante Bichette, who has struck out three times. Ellis Burks hitting .348.

Fastball missed, ball two. The way the ball carries here, the inability to really break off a good curve ball, makes what he has done, up to here, truly remarkable. Two and one.

And now, one precious strike away.

Got ‘im! Hideo Nomo has done what they said could not be done. Not in the mile-high city. Not at Coors Field in Denver. He has not only shut out the Rockies, he has pitched a no-hitter, and thank goodness, they saw it in Japan.”

Once upon a time, Hideo Nomo was considered among the handful of the most dominant and remarkable pitchers on the planet. After a brief call up in 2008 with the Kansas City Royals, it looks like his career has come to a quiet, unremarkable close. Once upon a time, the Blake Street Bombers and Coors Field united to create a unique and awe-inspiring brand of offensive baseball. Coors Field has since softened its effect on the scoreboard, and new sluggers and line drive hitters populate the ballpark in Colorado. The game, as it has always done, swings on a pendulum between offense and pitching. In 1893, the pitching distance was lengthened (to its present distance of sixty feet, six inches), and the resulting offensive numbers remain a high-water mark in the game’s history. The first decade of the 20th century witnessed a swing in the other direction, as pitchers controlled the action and the environment. From the lively ball era led to prominence by Babe Ruth in the twenties, to the pitching-dominated late sixties apexed by Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain’s 31 wins in 1968, baseball continually sways its favor. But even in the extremes, iconic and time-stilling performances will emerge out of the seemingly impossible and place their imprint on the game’s timeline and consciousness. Honus Wagner can compile an OPS of .957 in 1908 when the league average stands at .626. Lefty Grove can win 31 games against just four defeats and allow almost two-and-a-half runs less than the league average in the American League in 1931. Frank Howard can somehow power out 44 home runs in a pitcher’s park in 1968. And Hideo Nomo, like the hero in a fairy tale who slays the dragon, can stand in the center of the most hostile environment possible and twist, halt, spring, and pitch himself into the history books, where we will return to begin the story, ‘Once Upon a Time.’

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org, and baseball-almanac.com for information-statistical and anecdotal-that helped with this piece. Thanks too, for Vin Scully’s television broadcast call of the final out of Nomo’s no-hitter.

 

Four Ballplayers

10 years and 85 days after Jackie Robinson first emerged from the dugout at Ebbets Field and strode toward first base, four ballplayers stood together under a St. Louis sun, and posed for a group portrait captured on film. The photographer caught them in a moment before the 1957 All-Star game at Sportsman’s Park; they are joking, at ease with each other and the gaze of the lens. These four men were young, entering their primes as ballplayers, ready to continue their odysseys toward four of the greatest careers baseball has ever seen. More than a half-century later, I look with awe upon this moment and this image-for I have the luxury of knowing so much more than these four men could fathom at that particular place and time.

I know, for example, that the 26-year-old shortstop on the far left would soon win back-to-back MVP awards, capture two home run titles, and become so identified with his team and city that in the spring of his 77th year, a statue of his likeness would be unveiled outside his home ballpark.

I know that the outfielder standing next to the shortstop-still only 21-years-old on the day the film image was taken-would become known for a ferocity and will to win that was unmatched. I know that years after capturing the Triple Crown and becoming the only player in history to win a Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, he would become the first African-American manager in baseball history.

I know that the lanky, tall, smiling 23-year-old standing in the middle of the group would hit a pennant-winning home run later that year. And I know of another home run that would sail beyond the fence 17 years later-a home run that would forever link this outfielder with a man named Babe Ruth.

And finally, I know that the man standing on the far right-the elder statesman of the group, but still the one who is doing the most joking, the one who can’t stand still-would continue to make every ballfield he stepped onto his own personal playground. I know his resume would include 12 Gold Gloves, two MVP’s, a batting title, and four home run crowns.

Ernie Banks. Frank Robinson. Henry Aaron. Willie Mays. Each carved out an historic career-one filled with myriad accomplishments, moments of stunning artistry, and enough hardware to adorn a museum. Each would power out enough longballs to earn membership into the 500-home run club, and each would stand in front of an adoring audience in a small town in central New York, holding up a plaque that would symbolize his membership among the game’s immortals. Before that 1957 All-Star game, they had already begun their imprint on the game: Banks was making his third All-Star appearance, Robinson had been named the Rookie of the Year in 1956, Aaron had captured a batting title that same season, and Mays had won the National League MVP in 1954. Still, in this image they are babies, young men just beginning to write their own chapters. After the 1957 All-Star game, they would combine to make 52 more All-Star appearances, garner 17 Gold Gloves, earn six MVP’s, win two batting crowns, and capture 10 home run titles. I could go on and on citing statistics, but it seems unnecessary. For the names of these four ballplayers reverberate and resonate with every baseball fan, issuing a smile to anyone who chooses to remember or imagine fields and parks that once played host to Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays.

When these four ballplayers started their Major League careers, baseball was still in the infancy of what Jules Tygiel called “The Great Experiment.” Jackie Robinson had been given the opportunity to write a new chapter of baseball, and the prose and poetry he composed over ten years on the diamond forever changed the game. But by 1957, Robinson had retired, and it was time for a new generation to create their own storylines. For the better part of two decades, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays did just that. In a way, each seems to have borrowed an element of Jackie’s game and turned it into his own defining characteristic. Ernie Banks played with a joy-an emotion I always think of when I picture Jackie jubilantly clapping his hands as he skips down the third base line to meet his teammates at the plate. Frank Robinson brought an unrelenting desire to win to the ballpark-an emotion that makes me picture Jackie standing behind second base after Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, making sure that Thomson touched all the bases on his pennant-winning home run. Henry Aaron brought a dignity and grace to his playing-the same grace and dignity that allowed Jackie to fashion a Hall of Fame career in the face of unimagined pressure and vitriol. Willie Mays could make the basepaths his dance floor and engage in a never-ending game of rundown-Jackie would taunt, tantalize, and ultimately defeat other teams as he waltzed, strutted, pranced, dared, dashed, and flew from base to base.

When I look upon that image from the 1957 All-Star game, I stare into the eyes of the ballplayers, mesmerized by their youth and the knowledge of what lies in front of them. And I think of a legacy that has been passed from Jackie, through Banks, Robinson, Aaron, and Mays, and onto today’s generation of ballplayers. 61 years after Jackie Robinson stood with his teammates on a ballfield at Ebbets Field, Derek Jeter-wearing ’42’ for the night-whistled three singles through the middle of the diamond to continue his inexorable march toward 3,000 hits. 61 years after Jackie came to the plate for the first time and stood inside the batter’s box to face Johnny Sain, Ken Griffey, Jr.-wearing ’42’ on his road grays-drove a 2-1 pitch over the wall for his 595th career home run. 61 years after Jackie Robinson gave all fans the opportunity to watch his aggressiveness on the bathpaths, Jose Reyes-wearing ’42’ in a stadium less than 15 miles from where Jackie played on April 15, 1947-sped from home to third on his first triple of the season.

The thread-always with Jackie Robinson as the knot-remains strong and vital. From Opening Day in Brooklyn in 1947, through a moment before the All-Star game in 1957, to the records and achievements waiting to have their time onstage in 2008, baseball keeps taking us back and forth between the past and the present, juggling and shuffling moments and images that connect us all to our national pastime and to the men who have performed so brilliantly on its diamonds. No matter what images resonate with us, they all have their starting point on some field in the past, perhaps even one in St. Louis during the summer a half-century ago, when four young ballplayers started etching their names in the book of baseball.

Triples

Before we get started, I’d like to offer some triples-trivia to (hopefully) whet the appetite.

  • The record for most hits in a season without a triple is 216, set by Magglio Ordonez in 2007.
  • In Game 7 of the 1903 World Series, Boston & Pittsburgh combined to hit seven triples.
  • In 1904, Roger Connor was the all-time leader in both home runs (138) and triples (233).
  • Jimmy Rollins has the most triples in baseball since 2001.
  • When Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins each reached the 20-triple mark in 2007, it marked the first time since 1930 that two players reached the mark in the same year. In 1930, Adam Comorosky (23) and Earle Combs (22) each did it.
  • Curtis Granderson’s 23 triples in 2007 were the most in the Majors since Dale Mitchell had 23 in 1939.
  • Willie Mays (20 triples in 1957) is the last right-handed batter to have 20 triples in a season.
  • Johnny Estrada is the all-time leader in most at-bats (2027) and most hits (567) without a triple.

Nearly a decade ago, my good friend and colleague James walked over to my desk, and asked (without any real introduction) if I could name the five players to have collected 20 doubles, triples, and home runs in a season. This type of challenge was (and is) typical for the two us, for we have spent countless hours talking baseball, arguing stats, and imagining all-time lineups. I thought about the question for a minute or two, made a few guesses, and then followed along as James called up each player’s season on baseball-reference. For the record, the five players (at that time) were:

  • Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, 1911: 30 doubles, 21 triples, 21 home runs
  • “Sunny” Jim Bottomley, 1928: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 31 home runs
  • Jeff Heath, 1941: 32 doubles, 20 triples, 24 home runs
  • Willie Mays, 1957: 26 doubles, 20 triples, 35 home runs
  • George Brett, 1979: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs
Triple machine Jimmy Rollins (Julie Jacobson/AP).

Since that day, this club (and it’s members) have remained at the top of my baseball list titled “fun.” There is just something engrossing with the idea of the combination of these numbers and the type of player built to make a run at joining the club. And since that day, I had been keeping an eye on the baseball landscape to see if another player could emerge and collect 20 of everything. For a while, the prospects looked dim. Between 1957-2006, only five players had a season in which they reached the 20 triple mark: the aforementioned Mays and Brett, and a trio of light-hitting (in terms of extra-base power) speedsters-Willie Wilson, Lance Johnson, and Cristian Guzman. Triples, for the most part, had become the domain of the slap-hitter who could fly. And so I waited, wondering if I would get to see a player with enough of a varied skill set to join Schulte, Bottomley, and the rest of the boys in the 20-20-20 club.

For anyone who closely followed the 2007 late season pennant races and joined in the milestone-watches, the answer to that question above is fairly obvious. For in the late summer shadows of the 2007 season, two players-Curtis Granderson of the Tigers and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies-improbably collected 20 doubles, stroked 20 triples, powered out 20 home runs, and joined the 20-20-20 club. And aside from the pragmatic concerns of helping their teams (Rollins led the Phillies to their first NL East title since 1993, and Granderson contributed to a Tigers’ offense that scored the third-most runs in the Majors), these two ballplayers also gave us a glimpse into the past, and afforded us the wonderful opportunity to recall, investigate, and celebrate Wildfire Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath, Willie Mays, and George Brett. And in doing so, another thread linking the past to the present was created, reminding us again of the ability of the game and its players to transport us back and forth between eras.

Once upon a time, the triples suggested power. Ballparks were immense, with outfield walls seemingly miles away, opening up expansive gaps that afforded power hitters the space to litter the outfields with rocket line drives that in turn allowed the batter to motor the 270 feet from home plate to third base. More recently, triples thrived on artificial turf-where the fleetest of base runners could utilize the hardness of the ground to whistle balls toward the walls and then run, and run, and run. No matter what the circumstance or the milieu, triples have always provided an excitement, a rising sense of anticipation and fervor that builds and apexes with a slide or downshifting into third. When we watch a triple, we get to see the ballplayer in a sustained picture of motion, in which all of the assets and abilities combine and manifest themselves. And so for more than a hundred years, triples-because of their rarity, their combination of power and speed, their sustained and elongated action-have forced us out of our seats and created an almost reflexive desire to clap and smile.

One of the best parts about working for MLB Productions is that my desk sits a mere 50 feet away from our library. In the thousands upon thousands of hours of footage, certain images remain with me, growing in my mind’s eye until they have become permanent snapshots of the photo album I know as “baseball.” As I have been thinking about triples over this past week, a few of these images have leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. I’d like to share some of them with you.

Lou Gehrig triples at Yankee Stadium
Gehrig stands in the left-handed side of the batter’s box, feet planted close to the line that separates the space from home plate. His compact swing is forceful, but curiously he almost lays the bat down as he breaks out of the box. Gehrig seems to be almost at full speed three steps out of the batter’s box, and only 30 or so feet from the plate, he begins to widen out in anticipation of an extra-base hit. His head and eyes look directly out toward right-center field, following the ball and movement of the outfielders. His gaze remains on the play in front of him until after he hits first base, and then turns to fix squarely in the middle of the diamond. At the same time his head swivels toward second, Gehrig kicks into another gear, and I know instantly that he is not going to stop at second. He displays a machine-like power in his gait: arms piston-ing, legs churning. But there is also a sense of the contained about his dash. His head and torso keep still, focused on the next destination. Gehrig hits second with his right foot, elongating his last stride before the bag in order maintain his flow. And then he really turns on the speed. The upper body and head rock, aligning themselves in a pendulum against the arms. Gehrig is flying, allowing his power to fully assert itself. And then, 20 to 30 feet from third base, he begins to slow, and he pulls into third, standing, decompressing. This is a power-triple.

Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series
Immediately, I am drawn into the swing: the slight lift of the left leg in anticipation, the hands moving back and up. The bat flashes through the hitting zone, on an even plane that scorches the ball back from whence it came. Clemente’s head, so focused on the collision between ball and bat, now raises and directs the eyes toward a gap in left center where the ball is rocketing. As he hits second, the head is turned over his right shoulder; he is watching, reflexively calculating. His right foot hits second base, and he begins his last 90-foot dash in that inimitable style. His gallop…his hop. Giving the impression of both feet leaving the earth simultaneously before touching to gain power. Clemente’s teeth are bared, betraying the effort in his journey. Hands are clenched. He begins his slide, left leg bent under right, and glides over third base. The momentum carries his lower body past, but Clemente keeps his left hand connected. The left hand stays-always in contact-as he looks over his shoulder out toward left field. This is the dictionary-definition triple.

Joe Girardi triples in the 1996 World Series
Girard stands still in the right-handed batter’s box. And then, a measured swing (just a tad of the inside-out variety), sends the ball toward right-center field. Unlike Gehrig and Clemente, who seem to be running full blast immediately out of the box, Girardi lopes, more interested in the flight of the ball and its possible interception by the fielder than he is by the need to run. He starts to run hard after hitting first-the arms tight to the body, the compact frame chugging. Once he cuts the corner at second, he begins that Gehrig-like rock that shivers from head to waist. The slide-unlike Clemente’s (which seems to be both aggressive and necessary)-returns Girardi to his earlier pace. It is a slowdown, a nice, measured hello to third base. And with the stadium rocking, Girardi’s triple seems to have been the most contained element in the ballpark. This is the series-changing triple.

Jimmy Rollins triples at Wrigley Field
Rollins stands in the right side of the box, still for just a moment. It is the last time he is immobile, for his body always seems kinetic, electric. He is all measured movement, from the slightly upper cut swing, to the casual tossing of the bat. He runs fast, smooth. Rollins glides. If Clemente is a stallion, Rollins is a deer. He runs with a tilt in his body, as if the left side of his torso was being drawn to a center found on the mound. His 270 foot dash requires only one speed-Rollins on cruise control. His head, like the others’, remains focused on the play in the field. As he pulls into third, he stands with both feet on top of the bag, and reaches a height that almost allows him look into the eyes of his third base coach. This is the artistry inside the triple.

I never got to sit in the stands and watch Mays run out a triple, hat flying off somewhere between second and third. There is no footage of Schulte sending a long, deep drive in between fog-hidden fielders at Chicago’s West Side Park. But I know that these men followed the form of those who came before, and that their own interpretations of the triple influenced those who have played after. And so I will sit down tonight, and if I am lucky to watch a triple unfold, I will smile happily, knowing I am witnessing another version of the same dance between a player, three square bases, and 270 feet of field.

 

Happy Opening Day

Tom Seaver in 1969 (AP).

First of all, I’d like to take a moment to thank the folks at This Week in Baseball for giving me the space and opportunity to write about one of my passions-baseball. In order to try and give everyone an idea of what I’ll be doing in this column, let’s try a little exercise.

Close your eyes for a moment, and take a stroll in your mind’s eye toward any image that for you, remains as vivid as the moment in which you first experienced it. Maybe it’s Pedro in Fenway in 1999, when he stood atop Mt. Olympus and toyed with batters using an arsenal that you made you gasp and laugh at the same time. Perhaps it’s Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds in 1954, so small in that endless-looking centerfield and yet so immense in stature that a simple gesture of standing, knee bent, hands on hips seemed to be the most elegant, powerful, graceful gesture ever exhibited. Maybe it’s a curveball by Sandy Koufax or Doc Gooden; perhaps it’s the sense of contained power waiting to be unleashed that you first saw in Albert Pujols’ batting stance. Maybe it’s a name that conjured for you black and white images of a game that seemed almost mythical: Duke, Lefty, Whitey, Red, Big Train, and of course, Babe. Names and numbers. Swings and smiles. The deliveries of Warren Spahn and Dontrelle Willis . Jackie Robinson running the bases, hands flying, hook-sliding into third. There is a connection-an overlapping of times and moments and performances that appear unique and familiar at the same time-that colors our love and appreciation of baseball. Roger Angell called it the web of the game. Over the course of the 2008 season, I will be sharing some of these connections with you. And along the way, hopefully we’ll all learn a little more about ourselves and the game we love.

Every ballgame-the statistics that are accrued, the plays that are made, the wins and losses that are recorded-offers us the opportunity to reflect on the past and inspires questions concerning the future. With the possible exception of one-game playoffs and postseason games, no single day or week provides as many opportunities for these discussions and reflections as baseball’s Opening Day. Scorecards and ledgers are clean on Opening Day, waiting for the first pitches and swings that will begin to write the story of the ensuing baseball season. For all of us-players, fans, vendors and writers-Opening Day represents a clean slate and the opportunity to add new chapters to an always evolving encyclopedia of moments, memories and achievements. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this new beginning resides in the selection of the Opening Day pitcher. There is an honor and responsibility set upon the ace pitcher for each team as he is handed to ball for that first start of the season-a directive that says, “get us started off right… set the tone for the season… show us what you can do.” And as aces toe the rubber for the first time in 2008, we-emboldened by the sight of our guy peering in for that first sign-will feel the hope and the expectancy of what is to come.

In every season from 1968-1977, the New York Mets handed the ball to Tom Seaver on Opening Day. He was the franchise, the All-American boy from Southern California who came to New York and almost immediately helped change the fortunes of a moribund franchise. And for 10 straight years, Tom Seaver pulled on his jersey with the number 41, and strode to the mound to begin the Mets’ season. For a symbol of all that is possible, Tom Terrific was the perfect choice. Over the course of those 10 consecutive starts, Seaver recorded a 6-0 mark, and the Mets went 7-3. Facing the likes of Juan Marichal, Steve Blass, Steve Rogers, and Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver took the ball and delivered-driving toward the mound, right knee scraping the dirt, throwing high fastballs, breaking off darting sliders, baffling hitters-on the promise of Opening Day.

Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton matched up on Opening Day on four different occasions. Imagine that sight-crisp April temperatures welcoming thousands of fans sitting, waiting, and then cheering for two future Hall of Famers as they made their alternating turns on the mound. Tom Terriffic got the best of Lefty in those four marquee match-ups, winning two and losing none, while helping the Mets team to a 3-1 record. The final convergence between the two pitchers on Opening day took place on April 5, 1983 at Shea Stadium. And if the start of any season holds a certain magic, this particular afternoon stands above the rest. On April 5, 1983-after a five-and-a-half year tour with the Cinicnnati Reds-Tom Seaver was back where he belonged: pitching for the New York Mets on Opening Day. Although he was thicker, older, and slower in his gait to the mound, he was still Tom Terriffic. And over the course of six shutout innings on that afternoon, Tom Seaver reached back and reminded us of the magic that can happen when baseball begins its journey across a new season.

Over his 20 year career, Tom Seaver made 16 Opening Day starts-more than any other pitcher in history. Whether it was in the blue and orange for the Mets, the red and white for Cincinnati, or the red, white, and blue striped variety of the White Sox jersey, Tom Seaver began the season for his team with the fulfillment of all that was expected-he gave his team a chance to build upon the promise of early spring.

Happy Opening Day(s) to everyone. While you’re watching your team and wondering if this could be the year, take a moment to sit back, smile, and relax as you watch your own club’s ace work his stuff. For me, it remains one of the best parts about the baseball season-it conjures so many memories and blends so many images into a tapestry that never fails to elicit the same fascination and love that began while watching number 41 take hill year after year.

Tom Seaver’s Opening Days with the New York Mets

11 Starts
76 IP
66 H
14 BB
68 K
6-0
2.13 ERA
Tm W/L: 8-3

Tom Seaver Opening Day Starts as a Met versus Steve Carlton

4 Starts
29 2/3 IP
21 H
4 ER
5 BB
30 K
2-0
1.21 ERA
Tm W/L: 3-1