On Thursday, March 31, baseball will make its long-awaited return with its traditional Opening Day. It will be a day when fans just sit back, relax and enjoy the game before the divisional rivalries cause battles in the bleachers. With the epic pitching matchup of CC Sabathia versus Justin Verlander kicking off the season, it's sure to be a great 2011.
In other games, careers will be made while others may end due to injury. Fans will laugh, cry and cheer as their favorite players have (hopefully) amazing first games.
Some Opening Day performances have been good enough to be marked in the annals forever, including a notable one by Bob Feller (pictured at left). To celebrate this long-standing tradition as well as Feller's accomplishment, here are the top 10 most amazing Opening Day performances in history!
Though his later career was headlined more by his off-the-field troubles, Dmitri Young was still an effective outfielder with a great power bat. In stints with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals, Young was responsible for some long home runs and brought a fun-loving personality to the clubhouse.
Yet, the greatest moment of his career may have occurred on April 4, 2005. It was Opening Day for the Tigers and the team was playing the Kansas City Royals. Young went 4-for-4 with three home runs and five RBI as his team drubbed the Royals by a score of 11-2.
Even more amazing, this feat occurred in Comerica Park, long considered to be one of the hardest stadiums in which to hit a home run.
Don Baylor's career in baseball has been very successful. He was an effective speed and power threat in his prime and finished his 19-year career with solid numbers: a .260 batting average, 338 home runs, 1,276 RBI and 285 steals. After retiring, he managed the Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs as well as serving on a number of different coaching staffs. His most memorable performance as a player occurred on Opening Day 1973, when he was playing for the Baltimore Orioles.
In the retro-sheet era, no player ever hit for the cycle on Opening Day. In this game, Baylor came very close. He went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a triple and a home run as the Orioles shut out the Milwaukee Brewers 10-0. Baylor may not have gotten that elusive single, but this performance plus his love for the game earns him a spot on the list.
Since 1957, only four players have gotten five hits on Opening Day. Those four are Jeff Kent, Nellie Fox, Craig Biggio and, most recently, Aaron Miles. Of that group, Biggio is the only one to go a perfect 5-for-5.
This feat was accomplished on April 3, 2001. In that game, Biggio's five hits, all singles, contributed to his Houston Astros defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 11-3. It was just a small drop of success in the career of a man who played for 20 seasons (all with Houston), posting a .281 career batting average with 3,060 hits, 291 home runs, 1,175 RBI and 414 steals.
The Baseball Writers' Association of America should remember this game when it comes time to elect Biggio to the Hall of Fame.
On paper, Hank Aaron's stats for Opening Day 1974 are underwhelming. He only went 1-for-3 with a walk, but he also scored two runs and drove in three. How? Well, April 4, 1974 just happened to be the day that Aaron hit his 714th career home run and tied Babe Ruth for what was then first on the all-time list!
Sure, he didn't hit multiple homers on this day. Yes, he only had the one hit. Still, it was an Opening Day that saw baseball history occur. Thus, Aaron's 714th home run gets a spot on this list.
Many of you have probably never heard of Camilo Pascual. He was a Cuban pitcher who spent 19 seasons in the majors with both incarnations of the Washington Senators, the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. From 1961-1963, he was the American League's leader in strikeouts.
Yet, the high point of Pascual's career occurred on Opening Day 1960. That day, he pitched a complete game and gave up just one run on three hits with three walks and an astounding 15 strikeouts. His Washington Senators defeated the Boston Red Sox by a 10-1 margin. The lone run he surrendered came courtesy of a solo home run by Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams, who was appearing in his last-ever Opening Day game as a player.
If there's one thing you rarely see in baseball anymore, it's when a starter consistently goes the distance. Pitch counts have laid to rest the type of performances shown here and in the next few spots on this countdown. This one occurred on Opening Day 1965 in a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants.
The starting pitchers were Bob Veale (pictured at left) for the Pirates and future Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal for the Giants. On paper, it's obvious who the favorite was. Yet, in what can only be described as a miracle, the oft-wild Veale came out the winner.
The Pirates ended up winning 1-0, thanks to 10 remarkable, shutout innings from Veale. Over the course of those 10, he gave up only three hits and walked only one batter while striking out 10. The control was short-lived as Veale ended up leading the National League in walks that season, but it was a memorable start nonetheless.
There is no denying that Ted Williams is the greatest hitter in baseball history. Over 19 seasons, he batted .344 with 521 home runs and 1,839 RBI. He only hit under .300 once. Most important to this countdown, however, is his .449 career average on Opening Day.
His most memorable Opening Day game happened in 1942. Williams' Boston Red Sox were playing the Philadelphia Athletics at Fenway Park, and the man known as "The Splendid Splinter" started his season off with a bang.
Williams went 3-or-4 with a home run and five RBI as the Red Sox won the game 8-3. It was just one of many successful games in the long-and-storied career of the last man to hit .400.
In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Jack Morris turned in a pitching performance that is remembered today and will be for years to come. In the win-or-go-home game against the Atlanta Braves, Morris threw an astounding 10 shutout innings, giving up only seven hits and striking out eight batters while walking two, throwing a total of 126 pitches. His Minnesota Twins ultimately won the game in the bottom of the 10th and Morris signed a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays that offseason.
Of course, Morris was named the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter for 1992 and he answered the bell in an incredible fashion.
In a game that pitted him against the Detroit Tigers (with whom he started his career), Morris threw another complete game, surrendering two runs on five hits with seven strikeouts and three walks. This time around, he threw 144 pitches. Clearly, rust was not a factor as Toronto won 4-2.
In the early days of baseball, Walter Johnson was easily the best pitcher of all-time. His 417-279 career record to go with an incredible 2.17 career ERA (not to mention 3,509 strikeouts) are true marks of his dominance. Even more incredible are his 5,914.1 career innings pitched over 21 seasons, a true sign of his durability.
This durability is what earns him the No. 2 spot on this countdown, as evidenced in his performance on Opening Day 1926. Johnson's Washington Senators were facing off against the Philadephia Athletics at Washington's Griffith Stadium. What resulted was the greatest pitcher's duel in baseball history.
Going against Philadelphia's Eddie Rommel, Johnson threw an incredible 15 shutout innings, allowing just six hits to go with nine strikeouts and three walks. The Senators won 1-0 in the bottom of the 15th. My only regret is that the pitch count for this epic battle is unavailable, for that alone would be a testament to the arm strength of the man known as "The Big Train."
Just a few short months ago, the baseball world lost the legendary Bob Feller. Over the course of his 18 seasons in baseball, all spent with the Cleveland Indians, Feller posted a 266-162 record with a 3.25 ERA and 2,581 strikeouts. Apart from being a great pitcher, Feller was also an honorable man in that he voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces and gave up three seasons to serve his country.
Yet, Feller is ranked first on this countdown not for those accomplishments, but for turning in the single greatest Opening Day performance in baseball history. On April 16, 1940, Feller pitched what is to date the only no-hitter in Opening Day history.
The feat occurred against the Chicago White Sox, and Feller struck out eight batters while walking five. It wasn't a gem, but he still finished the job and forever cemented himself a spot in baseball history as a result.