Monday, April 6, 2009

Birthdays and Triple Plays, Opening Day Style

Smile! It's Opening Day!

The sun has come up on another Opening Day, and I couldn't be happier. (Well, figuratively, at least - no sun over here. Instead, there's going to be snow all day today, though at least there's no chance of a snowed-out Opening Day like they're having in Chicago.) It's the promise of a new year for everyone, and the first true day of spring. As a baseball fan, it's downright impossible not to be excited about Opening Day and everything that goes along with it: the optimism, the fanfare, the sold-out ballparks, the awakening of an entire city to the sites and sounds of spring. It's a great day.

I've been to four Opening Day games, and the Brewers home opener this Friday will make it five. There's always a great buzz going through the ballpark (and the tailgaters in the parking lot) and, as long as you can get past the slightly-too-high percentage of drunk college kids, it's one of the best days of the year to be at the stadium. My first taste of Opening Day baseball happened at Dodger Stadium in 1999. I've already written about this some, but it was a Kevin Brown-Randy Johnson matchup, with each pitcher making their club debuts after signing big free agent contracts in the offseason. The game was tied up on a two-out, ninth inning two-run home run by Raul Mondesi, and then won on another Mondesi two-run home run in the 11th inning. It would've been one of the more exciting games of the year if it had happened in July or August, but, since it happened on Opening Day, it's one for the ages. It's hard to ask for a better first game.

I could go on about the other Opening Day games that I have had the privilege to go to, but that seems a little too self-indulgent. Instead, I thought I'd point out a couple of interesting things about Opening Day (and April 6 Opening Days more specifically) that I found while playing with the Retrosheet database this weekend. I hope I'm not stepping on Mark's toes (from Way Back and Gone) with these "This Day In History"-type stories.

Opening Day Birthdays
One of the biggest honors a pitcher can receive from his team is to be named the Opening Day starter. When a team makes the choice to name a certain pitcher as their Opening Day starter, that teams is (usually) saying that this is their best pitcher, their #1 guy. There might be some instances where the choice for Opening Day starter is made due to other priorities, and, yes, there are some Opening Day assignments that are more telling than others, but, overall, being named Opening Day starter is an honor that any pitcher would gladly accept.

It occurred to me, then, that the Opening Day start might be even more special for those pitchers who were also celebrating a birthday. With Opening Day in late-March or early-April every year, that really limits the pool of potential Opening Day birthday-starters. In the Retrosheet era, there have actually been five pitchers who pitched either Opening Day or the home opener on their birthday, and one of them actually did it twice (each time on April 6).

The Opening Day birthday starters were:
  • Catfish Hunter, on April 8, 1976, Yankees @ Brewers. Catfish started his second season with the Yankees on his 30th birthday, in a 5-0 loss to the Brewers. Hank Aaron DH'd that day, and drove in 3 runs in the first two innings.
  • Marty Pattin, on April 6, 1971, Brewers @ Twins. Pattin took the hill on his 28th birthday in the Brewers' second year in Milwaukee. His offense was definitely behind him that day, as the Brewers beat the Twins 7-2 in a complete game from Pattin
  • Kirk McCaskill, on April 9, 1996, White Sox vs. Rangers. McCaskill started the White Sox home opener on his 35th birthday in his last year in the majors. He had actually appeared in a few Sox games before making this start, which makes me believe he wasn't the first choice. The White Sox lost the game, 3-2, though the loss was credited to Larry Thomas.
  • Charles Nagy, on May 5, 1995, Indians vs. Twins. It's safe to say that Nagy, being born in May, never expected to be pitching the home opener on his birthday. But with the delayed start to the season due to the players' strike, that's exactly what happened in 1995. Nagy pitched well, as the Indians went on to win the game 5-1.
  • Bert Blyleven, on April 6, 1973, and on April 6, 1979. The should-be-HOFer Dutchman is the only pitcher in the Retrosheet era to have started two Opening Days on his birthday, with the second happening 30 years ago today. He pitched great in the first start, beating the A's with a complete game, seven-strikeout game. He didn't pitch quite as well in the second, though the Pirates only lost 3-2 that day.
Opening Day Triple Plays
One of the rarest plays in baseball, the triple play is incredibly exciting. In the 100,000+ games in the Retrosheet era, there have only been 222 triple plays total, which comes out to a little less than 4 triple plays a season. With the triple play happening so rarely, its surprising that it has even happened at all on Opening Day. But it has, four different times, actually. Here's a list of the four Opening Day triple plays:
  • Orioles @ Senators on April 9, 1959. In the bottom of the 5th inning, Ed Fitz Gerald stepped up to the plate against Hoyt Wilhelm, with runners on first and second and the Sens up 5-0. With the runners (apparently) going, he smacked a line drive to the first baseman. A quick toss to the shortstop would record the second out, while a toss back to the first baseman would get the third, for a 3-6-3 TP. It was the first Opening Day triple play in the Retrosheet era. The Senators would go on to win handily, 9-2.
  • Astros @ Red on April 6, 1978. Thirty-one years ago today, the Reds, one full year removed from their consecutive World Series wins, started Tom Seaver against the Astros' JR Richard. The game was beset by inclimate weather, with over an hour and a half of rain delays periodically stopping the game, but the Reds made due. As the Reds entered the 7th inning, they were already leading 9-5. A leadoff walk from Rose, followed by a Griffey single, a Morgan double, and a Foster single would add two more runs to the board before Dan Driessen could step to the plate. With a two strike count on Driessen and runners on the corners, Sparky called for a double steal. Driessen struck out, Foster was tagged out trying to steal second and Morgan was caught in a pickle for the ultra-rare K-2-6-5-6 TP. The Reds would hang on to win, 11-9, in a wet and wild game.
  • Phillies @ Cardinals on April 11, 1981. It was Opening Day for the Cardinals, though the Phillies had already played a game a few days earlier. In the top of the 8th, the Phillies were already leading, 4-2. Three consecutive singles from Pete Rose, Manny Trillo, and Bake McBride would put runners on second and third after an error on the pitcher (16-time Gold Glover Jim Kaat). With Mike Schmidt up and first base open, the Cards did the logical thing and intentionally walked him. It paid off in spades, as Gary Matthews grounded to the shortstop, who started the very pretty 6-2-3-4 TP. The Phillies would go on to win, 5-2.
  • Twins @ Yankees on April 5, 1988. Viola started the game for the Twins, but did not last long, as the Yankees got to him in the 4th. By the time the Yankees batted in the 8th, they were already well-ahead of the defending World Series champs, 7-0. Tippy Martinez came in to pitch for the Twins, and could not find the plate. A walk, single, HBP, and another walk would leave the bases loaded for #9 hitter Rafael Santana. On a 1-2 count, Santana grounded the ball to the third baseman who stepped on the bag and tossed it around the horn for a quick and simple 5-4-3 TP. The Yankees would win the game, 8-0.
As I said, those are just a couple of interesting facts I found about Opening Day. I actually thought it was pretty amazing that April 6 kept coming up. I don't know if it's the most common Opening Day in the Retrosheet era, or if it's just the most interesting, but it's nice to know. Maybe today will bring about something just as exciting.

Enjoy the full slate of baseball on tap today, and enjoy it for all it's worth. There are few days on the calendar as hopeful and optimistic as today, as fans of all teams can welcome the spring with open arms (even if the day is full of snow), and I think we owe it to ourselves to enjoy it for all it's worth. Personally, I'm hoping for a snow day so I can stay home from work and watch tv all day, but I suspect I'll be stuck listening to MLB Gameday Audio all day instead. I guess that's not a terrible last resort.


The Common Man said...

Very fun. My favorite part of opening day (outside of the actual baseball) is looking at the box scores the next morning, and seing all those nice round numbers in the "avg" column. And the (1) in the HR section (unless it's Tuffy Rhodes, who gets a "3, (3)". Everything is so easy to understand on opening day. After about game 4 it starts getting pretty complicated. :)

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I'm not offended, Lar. Keep it coming. I've got a fun trivia post for later today on random Opening Day stuff. A couple of the answers are here.

Anyway, how slow is Mike Schmidt for not getting to second on a 6-2-3-4 double play. Geez.

BillP said...

Lots of good info, thanks. And I like the comment that both times that Blyleven started an opening day game on his birthday just happened to fall on April 6. :) That man mentions his birthday on just about every TV broadcast of the season, incidentally. He's a 9 year old in a 60 year old's body.

I think the only opening day I've been at the ballpark for was in 1993. The Twins were coming off a championship and a second place finish and had just signed hometown boy Dave Winfield coming off a big comeback year (at age 40, which might've been a warning sign, but whatever), so there was a lot of excitement. Kirby hit a HR in the 1st, and then in the 3rd the beer guy in the aisle next to us called out that Winfield was going to hit his first HR as a Twin, and he did so on the very next pitch, putting them up 4-3. Very exciting stuff.

Then Tapani gave up six runs in the top of the 4th, they lost 10-5, went on to lose 91 games, and basically lost the next seven seasons to depressing, hopeless ineptitude. So kind of a bittersweet memory, but it was fun for a while there.

lar said...

Bill, good point. I wanted to explicitly point out that his birthday starts were 30+ years ago *today*, but it does read kind of funny. That's a tough Opening Day loss, but at least you got the Kirby and Winfield HRs. The second Opening Day I went to was again at Dodger Stadium, this time against the Giants. It was 2002, so it was Bonds' first game after hitting 73 the season before. He slugged two bombs to the bleachers (both thrown back, I believe). I was rooting for the Dodgers, so it was kind of a bummer, but it was still something to see. My buddy was there with me in his Giants gear (a pretty brave thing to do in LA, actually), so he was plenty pleased.

And, Mark, I was thinking the same thing. I mean, I know Schmidt was slow, but that's a pretty good indicator of just how slow. I imagine the SS was playing very shallow, but still.

I hear you, TCM, about seeing all those nice little numbers in the box score. It's a neat thing to see. But I get real tired of it real soon. I mean, do we really need to know that Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .429 through 5 games? or that some schmoe you've never heard of leads the league with 13 RBIs? They just seem so random and unreliable so quickly... I like when things calm down in late-May and we can get past these small sample sizes (remember Chris Shelton? yeah, me neither.)

But you're right, for those first two or three days, it's a pleasure.

BillP said... didn't even occur to me that *today* was April 6. I really just thought you were being funny. Need more coffee.

It's nice to see the numbers come back down to earth, but I kind of like that the MSM hasn't caught on to the idea of sample sizes. I mean, how else is a guy like Chris Shelton going to get any attention? (That post his hilarious...Shelton = Pujols! And he's kind of serious!)