There should be baseball today, only there isn’t. Baseball has given way to more important concerns – health, safety, social distance – but its relative triviality doesn’t mean we aren’t feeling its absence. MLB is endeavoring to fill the gap with a day-long marathon of Opening Days and meaningful games past; Ben Clemens wrote a handy viewing guide for Opening Day At Home, allowing you to choose your own adventure. But it isn’t the same. As I was reflecting on what we lose without live baseball, I wondered if part of what moves us about Opening Day isn’t just the promise of the new and its attendant optimism, but also the memories we spirit in with us. Opening Day’s form and place on the calendar has changed as baseball has changed, but it has been home to some special games, and a good many special days spent with friends and family. Here are a few of the FanGraphs staff’s favorites. – Meg Rowley
March 31, 1998: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets
Despite 25 years of living in New York City and 22 as part of a Yankees partial season ticket plan, I can only remember attending a few Opening Days, all of them at Shea Stadium. It’s the first one that stands out. Before I was a baseball writer, or even a moonlighting blogger, I was a graphic designer, most notably at a company called Bill Smith Studio that specialized in textbooks and children’s books. Circa fall 1997, I was just another freelancer passing through, at least until the studio’s top project manager discovered I was a baseball fan. Soon Lillie, a Brooklyn-born Mets die-hard who annually purchased a four-seat partial season ticket plan through her one-woman corporation (she was an independent contractor) began inviting me to the occasional game. Suddenly, I also got placement on the studio’s more favorable projects, and quickly accepted an offer to join the staff.
Rightly, Lillie treated Opening Day as a holiday, and splurged for extra tickets, encouraging her guests to bring a friend or significant other. There may have been eight or 10 of us in tow at Shea Stadium for the 1998 opener, including one of my closest pals. On an unseasonably warm 82 degree afternoon, the Phillies’ Curt Schilling and the Mets’ Bobby Jones traded zeroes, with each team stranding several runners in scoring position. In the fifth, the Mets had first and second and one out, but Desi Relaford hit into a 4-6-5-6 double play in which Bobby Abreu (making his Phillies’ debut) was thrown out between second and third after the force play at second. In both the sixth and eighth innings, Philadelphia’s Rico Brogna made the third out, stranding a runner in scoring position. Schilling held the Mets to two hits and one walk while striking out nine over eight innings, while Jones worked around six baserunners in his six scoreless frames. Chants of “Yankees suck!” and boos for both mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Met Gregg Jeffries resonated, as they generally do in Queens.
Our group dwindled as the still-scoreless contest stretched into extras, with Lillie even opting for the LIRR around 5:30 pm. If my hazy memory serves, my friend and I bailed after Butch Huskey grounded into an inning-ending double play against Mark Leiter to end the 10th. Thus we missed Mets pinch-hitter Alberto Castillo plating Brian McRae with a 14th-inning single off Ricky Bottalico for the game’s lone run. The 14-inning game matched a 1995 Coors Field special (also involving the Mets) for the longest Opening Day contest since 1960. – Jay Jaffe
April 7, 1977: White Sox at Blue Jays
There is no green field to be seen, no bright sunshine — not even a shred of blue in the sky. There is no joyous return to the ballpark after a long winter away. The people are packed in, placing what barriers they can between themselves and the frigid air, the snow blowing into their eyes. They are decked out not in ballcaps and jerseys, but toques and parkas, all muted and wintery. There is no glitter, no shine. There are no illusions of grandeur here.
Who here in the stands can even see the field — the field not made for baseball, the field all the wrong shape, its dull turf dulled further by the snow that covers it like dust on a neglected shelf? And who are they here for? For 33-year-old starter Bill Singer, whose career will end after this season? For Steve Bowling, Doug Ault, Otto Velez? These are not the players Opening Day is meant for; Opening Day is for those who are anticipated, those for whom people are willing to wait all winter. Catfish Hunter is starting for the Yankees at this very moment.
It is for no lifetime of memories created, no continuation in a story decades in the making, and no much-beloved star for whom the people at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, brave the wind off Lake Ontario. They are here, freezing to their seats at the dreariest Opening Day in major league history — the only game ever played on field covered with snow — for a team they don’t even know yet. For players they have no reason to care for, a future they, at this moment, have no reason to be excited about. Right now, there is what there is: a bad stadium, a bad team, the worst weather for baseball imaginable. It is the anti-Opening Day, the exact opposite of the image that delights the collective imagination so much every year.
Someday, though, there will be bat-flips and pennant chases, back-to-back World Series titles. None of that is guaranteed, but it will happen, somehow, and these fans, these players, this miserable day — they are all part of it, now. This is part of the story.
The cold people here at the Ex watch these Blue Jays, whoever they are, beat the White Sox 9-5. They cheer. They go home happy. – Rachael McDaniel
April 4, 1994: The Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes Game
Heading into the 1994 season, Karl Rhodes had 322 plate appearances and five home runs. He had seen some time in the majors in each of the previous four years, but couldn’t get a good run of playing time. In his limited time in the big leagues, he put up an 87 wRC+ and was below replacement level. He was released early in the 1993 season, then came to the Cubs in a trade that sent Paul Assenmacher to the Yankees, with the Yankees moving John Habyan to the Royals. He hit well the last two weeks of the season and started Opening Day in 1994. He then hit three homers off Dwight Gooden. He would only hit five more homers in the big leagues before hitting more than 400 in Japan. The Tuffy Rhodes game is a reminder that anything is possible on Opening Day.
Historical Bonus: Bob Gibson struck out 13 Giants on April 11, 1967 in a complete game shutout. Though he missed seven weeks that season due to a broken leg, Gibson also pitched a complete game in the final game of the season, sending the Cardinals to a Game Seven win over the Boston Red Sox. – Craig Edwards
April 6, 1992: Cleveland Indians at Baltimore Orioles
This was the first day of the new stadium at Camden Yards and I was able to go, unlike most of the other kids at school, because my grandfather had season tickets. He wasn’t feeling well from the radiation therapy he needed for his prostate cancer, so I got to go to a baseball game by myself for the first time ever. This was only possible because Baltimore had just started its light rail service that week, with direct service from Timonium, and because 13-year-olds were still allowed to do stuff without an adult in 1992. I couldn’t get a ride so I walked 45 minutes both ways.
And the game was good! Rick Sutcliffe had possibly his best game in an Orioles uniform — he had signed that offseason to a pillow contract after two seasons ruined by injury — and shut out the Indians 2-0 in a game that went by briskly in two hours and two minutes. I’m sure there were other games, but this is the only one that I can specifically remember as having no relief pitchers. Camden Yards was such a cool place that I probably spent more time roaming around the stadium than sitting in my seat. 1992 turned out to be a pretty fun season, the first of several throughout the early-mid 90s. – Dan Szymborski
March 29, 2018: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets
This is the last Opening Day game I went to, and it was a blast. Both teams were playoff hopefuls coming off of a tough 2017 season. Though this was only two years ago, the pitching matchup wasn’t deGrom/Flaherty, as you might expect — Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Martinez faced off. deGrom hadn’t yet ascended to demigod status, and Flaherty was still in the minors, though he’d make his first start of the season only a week later.
The Mets’ goofy roster construction was on display — Jay Bruce, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Todd Frazier, and Adrián González batted 3rd-6th. This was a playoff hopeful’s Opening Day lineup in 2018! The Cardinals, meanwhile, were trying out a new outfield: Ozuna, Pham, and Fowler. The Mets lineup looks comical only two years later, while Ozuna and Pham have moved on. But both lineups felt fearsome at the time, and the game figured to be a clash of titans.
It wasn’t. The Mets romped to a 9-4 victory. But even as a Cardinals fan watching my team get trounced, there was one moment I’ll never forget. In the bottom of the seventh, with the outcome all but decided, Jordan Hicks took the mound in his major league debut.
I knew who he was. But the Mets faithful didn’t. And the sound in the stadium as the radar gun lit up will stick with me for years. One hundred on the first pitch, and an “ooh” went through the stadium. One hundred on the second pitch, a ball inside, and there was a buzz. By the time he touched 102 (!!) on a ball to Jay Bruce, the stadium was abuzz with half-believing murmurs of awe. He blew Bruce away with another triple-digit heater, and Bruce shook his head ruefully. It didn’t matter for the outcome of the game, but that feeling of 50,000 people discovering a phenom all at once was incredible. – Ben Clemens
April 26, 1995: Houston Astros at San Diego Padres
I had not previously done a study of the Padres’ Opening Day history, but I could tell you without looking that it was not very good. I haven’t missed one in probably 38 years. And even though I can only distinctly remember a few, I could’ve guaranteed you that the Padres almost never win, that my day ultimately ends in disappointment.
It turns out that they’re 22-29, which is better than I expected. That’s probably because nine of those wins came before I was even paying attention to the team. Remove those years (1969-1981), and the only teams I’ve known are 13-25 on Opening Day.
On Opening Day 1995, though, there was at least some hope that our Padres were close to turning things around. Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley had arrived in an offseason trade and many of the prospects acquired during the infamous “Fire Sale” appeared ready to contribute. While they were actually “close,” it wasn’t “1995 close.” And especially not on this day.
The Astros took an early lead on a third inning homer by Jeff Bagwell and never looked back. With the Padres down 5-1 in the eighth, things got completely out of hand. In one of the ugliest innings you can ever imagine, reliever Bryce Florie walked four batters and allowed five unearned runs to put the game out of reach.
As manager Bruce Bochy, in his first game ever as a major league manager, walked to the mound to remove Florie, Padres fans began throwing their giveaway hats on the field. My friend Gerry, who was standing next to me in the front row of the right field bleachers, decided he would join in on the fun. That is when my hero, Tony Gwynn, with hands on his knees, shook his head in disgust as he appeared to turn and look directly at me, the guy who didn’t throw his hat on the field. – Jason Martinez
Have a favorite Opening Day game? Drop it in the comments!