Right about now we should be chomping at the bit for baseball’s Opening Day, but due to current circumstances, baseball is nowhere in sight. The New York Yankees were scheduled to begin their home season on April 2 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Yankees won their prior two home openers – Didi Gregorius (sniff, sniff) homered twice in an 11-4 pounding of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018. Last year, Luke Voit homered and drove in four runs in a 7-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles. Even Greg Bird homered in the win.
There have been many glorious home openers in the franchise’s long history. There was Derek Jeter’s first season in the Bronx, the 2010 opener when CC Sabathia and company received their first World Series rings, Bobby Murcer’s pinch-hit grand slam back in 1981, and many more. But, if you had to narrow it down to the five best/most memorable Opening Days, you might come up with this list:
The Yankees hoped for the best when they signed Hideki Matsui to a contract prior to the 2003 season. The team was coming off a disappointing postseason in which they didn’t reach the World Series for the first time since 1997. Matsui had been one of the greatest sluggers in Japanese Baseball League history. It was in his native country that the Yomiuri Giants’ outfielder earned the nickname “Godzilla” for his hitting prowess.
Not many hitters, outside of Ichiro Suzuki, had found homes in the Majors, most likely because teams didn’t feel the Japanese game would translate to the United States version of baseball. Pitchers had been up for the posting – the process of making players from Japan available to the Major Leagues – at a higher rate than their hitting counterparts. The results were good (Hideo Nomo) and bad (Hideki Irabu).
The Yankees opened the season on the road with five wins over division rivals Toronto and Tampa Bay before they returned home for their opening series with the Minnesota Twins. Matsui had gotten off to a decent start on the road, with eight hits in 28 at-bats (.286) and three RBI. Matsui received a huge ovation as he came to the plate in the 2nd inning for his first home at-bat, but grounded out against Twins’ starter Joe Mays. In the fourth inning, Matsui walked his second time up and was on board for Robin Ventura’s two-run home run. The blast put the Yankees and starter Andy Pettitte ahead 3-1.
An inning later, Matsui came up with his first big Yankees’ hit. After back-to-back one-out singles by Nick Johnson and Jason Giambi put players on second and third, the Twins elected to walk Bernie Williams to load the bases. Matsui worked the count full before launching a back-breaking Grand Slam home run into the right-center field bleachers. It was his first home run as a Yankee and as a result, he received his first curtain call from the Yankees’ fans.
It was the start of a beautiful friendship for Matsui with New York and Yankees’ fans that would extend over seven seasons. He won the World Series MVP when the Yankees won it all in 2009 and signed a one-day contract in 2013 to officially retire as a Yankee. The Yankees honored Matsui that day and he threw out the first pitch, just as he did to kick off the 2016 season in the Bronx.
4. 1978: Roger Maris Lovefest
There was already excitement in the air for the Yankee Stadium opener on April 13, 1978. The team was the reigning World Series champion after they won their first World Series title since 1962. Mickey Mantle and surprise guest Roger Maris had been introduced to the crowd and received a thunderous ovation. All of Maris’ worries melted away as the two longtime friends walked out to Monument Park to raise the 1977 championship banner.
It was the first time Maris had been back to Yankee Stadium since the end of the 1966 season. (The Yankees had dealt Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals over that winter). Maris’ son, Kevin, told the Yes Network in 2011 that his father was extremely nervous when he decided to make his comeback to the Bronx in ’78. It’s not that Maris wasn’t welcome back to Yankee Stadium, but he wasn’t sure how the fans would treat him and he was still wary of the media. During the great chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961, the majority of the fans pulled for Mantle, feeling he was the record’s rightful heir. Maris’ shy demeanor and difficulty with the press didn’t help to sway anyone’s mind. (Prior to the ’61 HR chase, Mantle had been booed often by the fans. It wasn’t until ’61 that Mantle was regularly cheered no matter what he did on the field).
The media contributed to the fans’ attitude towards Maris by portraying the two players as bitter rivals, when in fact they were good friends and had even shared an apartment for part of the 1961 season. No one was happier for Maris than Mantle when the Yankees’ right fielder broke Ruth’s record on the final day of the season.
Maris was overwhelmed by the reception he received in ’78; he had always considered himself a Yankee and the cheers meant more to him than anyone knew. After his wonderful return, he regularly attended the Yankees Old Timers Day. In 1984, the Yankees retired his number 9 (Elston Howard’s number 32 was posthumously retired on the same day as well), and he joined other greats in Monument Park. Sadly, just one year later, Maris died of cancer at age 51.
The 1978 opening game itself was almost a side note. Reggie Jackson, whose last home game was his three-home run outburst in the sixth and final game of the 1977 World Series, belted a three-run HR to pace the Yankees to a 4-2 win over the Chicago White Sox. The home run set off a delay in the game due to candy bars raining from the sky. The new “REGGIE!” bar had been given to the fans on their entrance to the Stadium that day and they showered the field with them when Jackson went deep.
3. 1996: A Dynasty is Born
It had been 18-years without a championship when the Yankees’ 1996 season got underway. The fans, and probably the team to some degree, still had a bad taste in their mouths from the disappointing five-game playoff series loss to the Seattle Mariners in the prior postseason. The team had a new manager (Joe Torre), Don Mattingly had retired, and the fans were angry that catcher Mike Stanley was replaced by Joe Girardi.
A snowy April afternoon against the Kansas City Royals began to erase all of the negativity from 1995 and the strike-shortened 1994 seasons. After winning two games on the road in Cleveland, the Yankees came home after Texas won three straight against them. Pettitte, who had won his first start of the season, took the mound in front of over 56,000 fans on April 9.
The weather was miserably cold, but when large snowflakes started to fall, the atmosphere became a bit surreal. It didn’t bother the Yankee hitters too much, though. With the Royals starting left-hander Chris Haney, Torre plugged right-handed hitter Jim Leyritz into the cleanup spot in the order. Leyritz delivered with a three-hit day and a pair of RBI.
Mariano Duncan, (who coined the ’96 motto “We play today, we win today, das it”), and Paul O’Neill added two RBI each. Pettitte earned his second victory of the year, and John Wetteland got the save after the five previous outs were recorded, not by Mariano Rivera, but by Steve Howe. The Yankees swept the three-game set to move back over .500. On April 30, the Yankees moved into first place in the AL East and never left it. On Oct. 26, the Pinstripes were back home and captured their 23rd World Series title in a six-game victory over the Atlanta Braves.
2. 1976 – Yankee Stadium v1.1
For two years the Yankees were exiled to Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium underwent renovations. Like the 1996 team, the ’76 squad was trying to snap a long (24 years) streak without a World Series title. With divisional play not introduced until 1969, the Yankees hadn’t reached the postseason since they had lost the 1964 World Series (to the St. Louis Cardinals). Those in attendance included former Yankee greats – Joe DiMaggio, Mantle, Whitey Ford – Lou Gehrig’s widow, Babe Ruth’s daughters, members of the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants football teams that played in the classic NFL championship at the Stadium in 1958, and boxer Joe Louis. Former team announcer Mel Allen, long-time clubhouse head Pete Sheehy and former Postmaster General James Farley were also among those introduced to the crowd. Billy Martin was in his first full year as Yankees manager. His coaching staff included former Yankee greats Yogi Berra and Elston Howard.
The Twins’ “Disco” Dan Ford hit the first home run in the new park and Twins built a 3-0 lead, but the Yankees won the game 11-4. Oscar Gamble and Mickey Rivers had three hits and two RBI each in their Yankee home debut. Dick Tidrow threw five scoreless innings to pick up the win and Sparky Lyle got the final five outs to earn his first save of the season.
The Yankees moved into first place after the third game of the season and never looked back. The team captured the AL pennant (vs KC), and although they Cincinnati Reds swept them in the World Series, the Yankees were back. They captured the next two titles for the 25th and 26th World Series championships in franchise history.
1. 1923 – The House that Ruth Built
What else could the number one Opening Day possibly be? A reported 74,200 fans passed through the gates of Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923, to see the Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox. On top of it being Opening Day, it was also the first Major League game played in the brand new Yankee Stadium. No longer would the Yankees have to share the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants, who were the landlords to their American League tenants. (The Giants were happy to see them go since the Yankees’ home attendance had surpassed that of the Giants.)
Renowned composer and conductor John Philip Sousa and the Seventh Regiment Band performed prior to the game and played the Star-Spangled Banner. New York Governor Al Smith threw out the first pitch. The Yankees beat the Red Sox 4-1, scoring all four runs in the 3rd inning. The inning included the first home run in the new park’s history by the “Bambino” himself, Babe Ruth. A very appropriate batter since the place was coined “The House that Ruth Built” by Fred Lieb of the New York Evening Telegram.
The Yankees roster wasn’t “Murderer’s Row” yet, but there was plenty of talent. In addition to Ruth, manager Miller Huggins, and pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Another future Hall of Fame member, Lou Gehrig, was pitching for Columbia University on Opening Day and didn’t join the team until later in the season. The team’s shortstop Everett Scott held the iron man record for most consecutive games (1,307) played until Gehrig later broke it. Opening Day winning pitcher Bob Shawkey pitched for the Yankees for 13 seasons and his 168 wins are sixth on the Yankees’ all-time wins list. The new digs were good luck as the Yankees won the first of their 27 World Series championships in the 1921 season.
There you have it. Hopefully, we have a home opener this year and it’s incredibly memorable.