Ten Post staff members share memories of their favorite Opening Days:
So it was 1963 and the Mets were opening their second and final season at the Polo Grounds, a ballpark I loved because, among other things, you could sneak down with your $1.30 general-admission ticket to the box seats by the fifth inning and no usher would ever bother you.
The Cardinals were in town, school was out for spring vacation, and a few of us headed to the ballpark on the D Train to meet the Mets of New York town, who had Duke Snider in the lineup, batting cleanup. Duke Snider! My dad had been a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He loved the Duke. Now the Duke was a Met. Now I could root for the Duke!
It was 7-0 St. Louis, it was the bottom of the ninth, there was one out and one on when Snider, wearing No. 11, ambled to the on-deck circle. By that time, we’d snuck down to the box seats, not so far away. Naturally, I called out to the Duke. Not once, not twice — well, you get the idea.
And the Duke looked over his shoulder and sort of waved. The Duke! It was a memory for a lifetime, which I recounted to Snider when I met him later in life when he was a broadcaster for the Montreal Expos. Oddly, he did not recall it.
PS: The only Opening Day I’ve ever covered was in 1994, Mets-Cubs at Wrigley, Tuffy Rhodes with three home runs off Dwight Gooden. Not as memorable as the Duke waving to me.
It was a cold Opening Day, but then they usually are in Cleveland, where the Yankees opened the 1993 season. The whipping wind off Lake Erie blew right through Cleveland Stadium’s rickety press box, circulating dust and dirt that likely had been there since Bob Feller’s prime.
But that wasn’t why my eyes were watering, why tears were running down my face and the faces of so many of my colleagues. Down on the field the Yankees and the Indians stood on their respective foul lines as 73,290 fans paused to remember Indians pitchers Steve Olin, 27, and Tim Crews, 31, killed after each suffered massive head injuries in a boating accident a little more than two weeks earlier. One-time Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda was badly injured in the accident that occurred on Little Lake Nellie in Clermont, Fla., during a day off from spring training.
But it wasn’t just the active players who were on the field for the brief but emotional ceremony. So were the widows, who carried their husbands jerseys complete with the newly sewn memorial patches. Also on the field were the children of Olin and Crews — each had three young kids.
The Yankees beat the Indians 9-1 that day. Jimmy Key got the win. Matt Nokes and Pat Kelly each drove in three runs. Wade Boggs, playing his first game with the Yanks, drove in a pair.
But the game wasn’t the story. In fact, it may have been the most inconsequential Opening Day game ever.
Yet that’s the opener I always think about this time every year.
The 17th birthday, I realized for a long time, would be a big one for my friends and me.
Sure, getting a driver’s license generally would provide us with all sorts of freedoms. But we focused specifically on one perk: the right and ability to attend Opening Day.
For me, my first remains my best.
On April 5, 1988, I rode in my friend Scott’s brown Chevy Celebrity from New Jersey to Yankee Stadium. Along with our buddies Perry and Beaver, we saw the Yankees rout the defending champion Twins, 8-0, starting Billy Martin’s fifth and final pinstriped managerial tour on a strong note. Dave Winfield, having just released a book critical of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, drove in the game’s first run with a fourth-inning RBI single off reigning World Series MVP Frank Viola. Winfield received a standing ovation; The Boss was nowhere as popular back then.
Mike Pagliarulo slammed a three-run homer. Rick Rhoden twirled a 115-pitch shutout. Rafael Santana, in his first game as a Yankee, grounded into an eighth-inning triple play.
The pomp, the circumstance, the history … it all lived up to all the hype. Even the postgame, parking-lot discovery of a flat tire on Scott’s car didn’t dampen our high.
I attended six more Opening Days as a fan and have covered 23 as a journalist. On what should have been my 31st, I’ll maintain my annual tradition and reflect on what it meant to be 17 and achieve a lifelong dream.
If I gave you 50 tries, would you be able to guess who had perhaps the greatest debut in Mets history?
Because the answer is a player who was one of their most colossal disappointments.
The answer is Kazuo Matsui.
Back in 2004 when I was starting my first year as the Mets beat writer for The Post, the team opened the season in Atlanta, and here’s what Matsui, the new $23 million Japanese shortstop did: He went 3-for-3 with two doubles, two walks and three RBIs in the Mets’ 7-2 win.
Oh, and he homered on the night’s first pitch — the first pitch he ever saw as a major leaguer.
“It’s almost a fairy tale,” Art Howe said.
Matsui’s performance was extraordinary, and I’m sure I — and maybe all Mets fans — wondered if they had legitimately landed a megastar. They hadn’t. It was an aberration as opposed to a harbinger. But in Mets history, there’s probably never been anything like it. Before or since.
George A. King III
April 7, 1987 was supposed to be a day of celebration at Shea Stadium. The Mets raised their 1986 World Series banner before facing the Pirates on Opening Day.
Everything was in place for a party — except Doc Gooden was in a drug and alcohol rehab facility in Manhattan.
Bobby Ojeda started, went seven innings, scattered 10 hits and gave up a run in a 3-2 Mets victory in front of 46,102 on a grey afternoon that necessitated having the lights on at the start of the game.
Gooden’s absence was front and center and Ojeda pitched very well, but Darryl Strawberry was the one who drew the most attention.
Not only did Strawberry hit a three-run homer off lefty Bob Patterson in the first inning, he was wearing Gooden’s pants. And the blast fulfilled a promise Strawberry made to Gooden before the game that he would hit a home run.
Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter each had two hits. Jesse Orosco worked the final two innings for the save but injected a big dose of drama by giving up a run in the ninth before ending it by getting Bobby Bonilla to hit a bases-loaded grounder to second baseman Wally Backman.
It was played in 2 hours, 30 minutes, and NYC’s own John McSherry was the first-base umpire.
In 2000, I was 25 and had just been promoted to be the Mets’ beat writer for The Post. That year, the Mets’ Opening Day was in Japan against the Cubs.
One of our baseball columnists then, Tom Keegan, was on the trip with me. Keegan had known Tommy Lasorda well from his days in Los Angeles covering the Dodgers. Lasorda was on the trip as a baseball ambassador, if memory serves me correctly. He was also Mets manager Bobby Valentine’s mentor.
During batting practice where the media is outside the cage, Keegan introduced me to Lasorda as “Jimmy Olsen.” Keegan was having some fun, but Lasorda apparently had never seen Superman. He didn’t suspect a thing.
Later that night, Bobby V and Cubs manager Don Baylor got into a brouhaha over an issue with Baylor’s lineup card. Baylor had listed a player twice and Valentine waited until the ninth inning to point it out in an attempt, in Baylor’s view, to freeze Cubs closer Rick Aguilera.
After we spoke to the heated managers in the postgame, I was taking the elevator up to the press box when Lasorda jumped on. It seemed like a good idea to see what he thought.
I asked Lasorda if he could comment. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Anything for you, Jimmy.”
It’s not often the most memorable scene from Opening Day comes not from the field but from the hallway outside the home clubhouse. That’s what happened when the Yankees opened their season in 2013.
There was Alex Rodriguez, who had stayed away from spring training following January hip surgery — and revelations that he had been involved in the Biogenesis scandal that was just beginning to rock the sport.
Despite being on the disabled list — and already gearing up for a fight with MLB that would ultimately lead to him being suspended for the 2014 season — Rodriguez showed up in The Bronx and spoke before the Yankees faced the Red Sox, fittingly, on April Fools’ Day.
On that day, Rodriguez mostly declined comment on the investigation, but he made it clear he expected to play at some point during the season: “That’s the plan, absolutely.”
Rodriguez eventually returned to the majors after spending much of the summer feuding with the Yankees as he played his way through the organization’s minor league system, rehabbing his hip. His debut came on Aug. 5, the same day he was suspended through the 2014 season — a ruling he appealed, but served the following year.
The extent of my experience covering major league baseball had been two midseason Yankees games the previous year when I drew the assignment for the Mets’ 1998 opener, against the Phillies at Shea Stadium.
It became an epic.
Trying to keep cool on an unexpected oppressively hot day became a challenge as the game proceeded scoreless into the middle innings. Bobby Jones, in his third career Opening Day start (that’s two more than Jacob deGrom has pitched), allowed four hits over six shutout innings. But the better starting pitcher was Curt Schilling, who fired a two-hitter over eight scoreless innings with nine strikeouts.
Mike Piazza was still almost two months away from arriving in a trade to the Mets, and the composition of the team’s lineup for that opener indicates why such a big bat was necessary: Bernard Gilkey and Carlos Baerga, then on their career downsides, were hitting in the middle of the lineup, surrounding John Olerud.
With it scoreless in the 14th inning, the Mets loaded the bases, prompting manager Bobby Valentine with two outs to summon backup catcher Alberto Castillo, his last available pinch hitter. Castillo delivered a single to right field against Ricky Bottalico for a 1-0 Mets victory in 4 hours, 35 minutes.
I have covered nearly 2,000 Mets games since then. My first is still among the most memorable.
We were NYU seniors, a few months from graduation. Jim Luttrell was a huge Mets fan; I was a fan of not going to school any longer and baseball.
So it all seemed obvious. April 8, 1985. Dwight Gooden’s first start after his brilliant rookie season, more importantly Gary Carter’s first game as a Met, plus Cardinals-Mets and all their percolating hatred. Opening Day. Matinee. Did I mention, the hell with more classes?
Jim and I had become pals working for the Washington Square News and though neither of us had graduated yet, we both were full-timers at United Press International. He picked me up in his Cutlass Supreme, I already had the hero sandwiches, we bought walk-up tickets in left field at Shea. And it was freezing.
I drank hot chocolates, Jim — now a senior staff editor at The New York Times and that paper’s grievance chair with the NewsGuild — was heartier and downing beers. My most memorable Opening Day was followed two days later by strep throat.
The game was terrific, but took 3 hours 42 minutes, over 10 innings. Of course, we stayed until the end. Thankfully. Gooden wasn’t sharp in the cold, the Mets blew a late 5-2 lead. It was 5-5, one out, bottom of the 10th.
Two huge trades had elevated the Mets to top contenders: They swapped Neil Allen for Keith Hernandez in June 1983 and dealt four players, including Hubie Brooks, for Carter in December 1984. Now, it was Allen versus Carter. By this point, Jim and I had moved from left field to first-base field level — borough kids sneaking where they shouldn’t be. And there was Carter taking Allen into the left-field area we had abandoned.
I was a Reds fan — loved Pete Rose — but even I joined in the moment, hugging my Mets fan pal. Then we had to go, even on my favorite Opening Day ever. I was freezing.
For my father and I, this was the best kind of closure. Six years earlier, he’d helped console inconsolable 10-year-old me on the night the Mets traded Tom Seaver to the Reds.
“Life isn’t always fair,” he’d told me, “and neither is baseball.”
Now — Tuesday, April 5, 1983 — my dad and I sat in two mezzanine-level seats alongside 46,685 fellow believers at Shea Stadium and we stood and cheered as Seaver took a long, slow walk in from the right-field bullpen. The king had returned from exile, restored as the Mets’ Opening Day starter. Video of that day now reveals an older, thicker version of No. 41.
That day, we didn’t care. The Franchise was back. Tom Terrific was back. He struck out Pete Rose, of course, the first batter he faced. He threw six shutout innings on a bad leg. He didn’t get the win but the Mets did, of course, 2-0 over the Phillies, because even in years like 1983 when the Mets were terrible they always won on Opening Day and they always beat Steve Carlton.
It was the last of the 11 Mets games I ever saw live with my father, just the two of us, parking near my grandmother’s house in Corona and walking over to Shea. It was a good one to go out on.