An A.J. Hinch Opening Day Memory

A.J. Hinch’s first Opening Day as a player was on April 1, 1998. There were butterflies, and not for that reason alone. Catching and batting seventh in the Oakland A’s lineup, Hinch was making his big-league debut. I asked him about it during a recent Zoom call.

“I remember going into the game nervous on both ends,” admitted Hinch, who was 23 years old at the time. “I had to face Pedro Martinez in his first American League start, with the Red Sox, and I had to catch Tom Candiotti, who was a knuckleballer. I knew that the catching was going to be easier than the hitting.”

That proved to be the case… despite his best intentions. Hinch professes to having had designs — if not expectations — on getting his first hit against the Hall of Famer. He imagined himself standing on first base, asking for the ball to be tossed into the dugout for safekeeping. Martinez’s name would then be etched upon it, along with the date, and it would find a home on Hinch’s mantle. No longer just a baseball, it would henceforth be a cherished memento.

“Pedro wanted none of that,” affirmed Hinch, who punched out twice while going 0-for-3 against the erstwhile ace. “He dominated me that first night.”

Catching Candiotti proved to be the easier of the tasks. With the caveat that corralling butterflies is ever challenging, Hinch — despite jangling nerves — handled himself with aplomb. Having caught Candiotti all spring proved helpful, as only once did an errant knuckler elude his mitt and allow a Red Sox runner to advance. The catcher-turned-manager remembers it happening.

“There was one, ‘Was it a passed ball, or was it a wild pitch?,'” recounted Hinch, a hint of humor in his telling. “As a catcher, it’s a wild pitch every time.”

Hinch recalls the game itself — a 2-0 Oakland loss — being a blur. All these years later, he can reflect back on that April night with a clear-headed appreciation of what he experienced.

“That was my first feeling of really accomplishing something in baseball,” expressed Hinch, who went on to play seven seasons, and is now embarking on his eighth as a big-league manager. “Name on the back of your jersey, home whites in Oakland, facing a growing legend in Pedro Martinez … some of the names in that box score, the theatrics of Opening Day. I don’t think I really appreciated it, because I was locked in on not messing up, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But a major-league debut on Opening Day, at home with some legends on the field… it was pretty incredible.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

Does Hinch recall winning the 2017 World Series and the soothing sounds of garbage can lids banging in the background? It’s like it never happened.