This Week in Baseball History: April 5 – 11

Remember that struggling hitter who left baseball to win 3 NBA Finals?

This is the time of year for new beginnings. A fresh baseball season means anything is possible. Unheralded rookies like Yermin Mercedes can break out and etch their names into the record books. Beloved veterans like Miguel Cabrera can perhaps have a career renaissance as they grind their way to milestones like 500 HRs and 3,000 hits. Maybe a budding ace like Jose Berrios can do something no one has ever done before… like throw 200 consecutive no-hit innings???

Okay, that last one is definitely impossible. But the point is that any player can surprise us this year, that’s the beauty of baseball. In honor of the first week of the regular season, let’s take a look at some of the most notable Opening Days in major league history.

 

April 5, 1993 – The Birth of the Marlins & Rockies

 

28 years ago today, we welcomed the Marlins and Rockies into this wonderful world that we call Major League Baseball. Despite the fact that both teams have never won their respective divisions, Marlins fans are undoubtedly much more satisfied than Rockies fans.

Time travel! What was baseball like back in 1992? Well, the Blue Jays had won the World Series just one year before Joe Carter would become a household name. Dennis Eckersley became the latest relief pitcher to win the AL Cy Young AND MVP in what would be his third-best season (1.91 ERA/, 1.72 FIP, 0.913 WHIP, 80 IP, 51 SV) out of the previous five years. Meanwhile, in the NL, an up-and-coming Cubs pitcher named Greg Maddux (20 W – 11 L, 2.18 ERA/166 ER, 2.58 FIP, 1.011 WHIP, 268 IP, 199 K:70 BB) won his first of four consecutive Cy Youngs, and the established Pirates star Barry Bonds (.311/.456/.624, 109 R, 34 HR, 103 RBIs, 39 SB, 127 BB:69 K) won his second MVP at just 28 years old.

There was one thing that made the MLB a bit imbalanced: the AL had 14 teams, the NL just 12. There had not been an expansion since 1977, when the Mariners and Blue Jays came about.

More importantly, there were many untapped markets throughout the United States. In the southeast, the Braves reigned supreme. The closest franchise to them was the Cincinnati Reds, over 400 miles to the north. The midwest was just as barren. Between Kansas City and California, throughout the entirety of the Rocky Mountain Time Zone, there were no teams.

A couple of years after the 1985 collective bargaining agreement first raised the possibility of expansion, the MLB began considering candidate cities. By May 1991, just six remained: Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C.

Obviously, the biggest factor at play would be which region generates the most money. Buffalo seemed like an intriguing sports market, especially considering Jim Kelly had led the Buffalo Bills to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. D.C. had previously hosted the Senators for decades before the team migrated southward and became the Texas Rangers. Tampa/St. Petersburg had built the brand new Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) to make themselves a more attractive spot. And Orlando had tourists who liked Disney World.

Ultimately, the league picked Denver and Miami due to their strong financial backing. This set the stage for the first expansion draft in 16 years.

72 players, 10 of whom would later become All-Stars, had to pack their bags and start scouring newspapers and phonebooks for new apartments (or however people did that before apartments.com — I was not paid to shout them out, I swear).

With the first overall pick, the Rockies selected David Nied, who had a 1.17 ERA/320 ERA+, 1.78 FIP and 0.652 WHIP with the Braves over 23 IP in his rookie season. The Marlins first selected Nigel Wilson, a prospect with serious speed and hitting potential. Both players would be out of the league within five years.

The Marlins were much more fortunate in the draft despite them building a team not designed for immediate success. They nailed the selections of Trevor Hoffman (who was traded for Gary Sheffield), Carl Everett (who was traded for Cliff Floyd), and Jeff Conine. Meanwhile, the Rockies found some diamonds in the rough in Joe Girardi, Brad Ausmus, and Eric Young Sr.

With the rosters fully fleshed out, both franchises played their first regular-season game on April 5, 1993. The Marlins hosted the Dodgers at Joe Robbie Stadium, and the Rockies visited the Mets at Shea Stadium.

In what would be a harbinger of their future success, the Rockies lost 3 to 0 due to a CGSO from Dwight “Doc” Gooden. Their first overall pick from the expansion draft, Nied, went just 5 IP and gave up two runs on six hits and six walks.

 

The Marlins, on the other hand, clobbered Orel Hershiser for 5 runs, winning the game by a score of 6 to 3.

 

Both teams would finish the 1993 season with the worst offenses in baseball (79 wRC+ for Miami and 84 wRC+ for Colorado). The Marlins pitching staff was pretty average (4.15 ERA), while the Rockies suffered from the Coors Field effect (which did not benefit their offense) and finished dead last with a 5.44 ERA.

It’s been 24 years since baseball last expanded. This is easily the longest such time without expansion in the MLB since the first such draft occurred in 1960. This means that much like the supervolcano in Yellowstone, we are way overdue for something major to happen.

 

April 7, 1994 – Michael Jordan’s Baseball Debut

 

On Oct. 6, 1993, Michael Jordan shocked the sports world by announcing his sudden retirement from basketball. At 30 years old and still in his athletic prime, Jordan hoped to follow in the footsteps of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders and become a two-sport star.

A couple of months later, Jordan found his baseball home in the middle of Alabama, playing for the White Sox’s Class AA affiliate Birmingham Barons. But one thing held Jordan back. He didn’t have any baseball experience. Well, not since high school. His swing was unorthodox, in some ways reminiscent of Hunter Pence as he seemed to rely too much on his upper body, which zapped his power. His baseball knowledge was sparse—he didn’t know the difference between a four-seamer and a two-seamer.

Just imagine how difficult it must be for somebody to pick up and succeed at a sport that they haven’t played in over a decade. Despite all this, Jordan natural athletic talent allowed him to hold his own on the diamond.

Baseball fans first got a taste of Jordan on April 7, 1994 in an exhibition game between the White Sox and Cubs at Wrigley Field. Jordan wore No. 45, the number he had on his high school baseball team, and played RF.

Every time that Jordan stepped out onto the field, the crowd pulsed with electricity. When the White Sox 2B caught a shallow pop-up in RF instead of Jordan, fans booed the infielder loudly. And when Jordan finally made his first professional play on a routine putout, fans went wild.

In his first at-bat, Jordan worked a 3 – 0 count before popping out to first on a high fastball. But it didn’t take long for Jordan to step up in the clutch.

In the sixth, with the Sox down 4 – 0, Jordan slapped a weak dribbler past third base, good for a RBI single. A couple innings later, Jordan made solid contact with the ball, driving it down the left field line again for a RBI double to tie the game.

Jordan ended the day 2-for-5 with 2 RBIs, and the next day he officially started his MiLB career. His Barons debut was much less fortunate as he went 0-for-3. But in his second minor league game, Jordan collected his first professional hit off of Joe Ganote, which kicked off a 13-game hit streak.

 

Across his only season in 1994, Jordan had 497 PAs in 127 G, hitting .202/.289/.266 with 3 HR, 51 RBIs, 46 R, 30 SB:18 CS, and 114 K:51 BB. For someone who again hadn’t played baseball in about a decade, that’s impressive. Who knows what sort of career Jordan could’ve had if he didn’t want to win another three NBA Championships.

 

April 8, 1974 – Hank Aaron Becomes the HR King

 

53 years. That’s how long it took for someone to pass Babe Ruth in career home runs. And for most of Ruth’s reign as the king of the long ball, no one came close.

Sure, Jimmie Foxx gave him a fright. Through their respective age-32 seasons, Foxx had exactly 500 HR, and Ruth just 412. But from his age-33 season and on, Foxx hit just 34 more homers.

Willie Mays was Ruth’s next serious challenger. But Mays was a true five-tool player who excelled at every aspect of the game, not just hitting. Once Mays reached his late 30s, his body started giving up on him, and he couldn’t quite make that final push to 700. As Mays worked his way up the career home run leaderboard, he was ultimately surpassed by a contemporary who represented the hallmark of consistency: Hank Aaron.

From his debut in 1954 until his retirement 23 years later, Hammerin’ Hank did not have a bad season. For two decades he was seen as one of the game’s premier offensive players. While Aaron could never match the single-season HR totals of Ruth, Foxx or Mays — Aaron maxed out at 47 — his body never gave up on him.

From ’55-’70, Aaron never played fewer than 145 games. In 1973, at age 39, he hit 40 HR in 120 G. Coincidently, that put him at exactly 713, one short of Ruth’s legendary career mark.

So when 1974 came around, fans knew that Aaron could make history on Opening Day. And Hank being Hank, he did exactly that.

On April 4, off Reds ace Jack Billingham, Aaron hit No. 714 in his very first at-bat.

 

After 53 years, someone finally stood side-by-side with The Great Bambino. Fans waited for Aaron to take the next step.

On April 8, the Braves returned home to Atlanta Stadium to host the Dodgers in front of a crowd of 53,775. In Aaron’s first at-bat against Al Downing, he worked a walk. But when Aaron came up again in the fourth, this time with the Braves down 3 to 1, Aaron was looking to trot.

Aaron easily laid off the first pitch, an off-speed ball in the dirt. Downing quickly delivered the next pitch, a high fastball. And with Vin Scully in the booth, Aaron swung and made history.

 

As Scully perfectly put it, what a marvelous moment.

 

April 8, 2016 – The Neverending (Trevor) Story

 

Back in the good ol’ days of 2015, Colorado had just traded away their long-time fan favorite shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, but waiting in the wings in the minors was his intended eventual replacement, Brendan Rodgers — the third overall pick in the 2015 draft. In a farm system that Baseball Prospectus ranked the 9th best in all of baseball, Trevor Story was an afterthought.

But just one year later, every baseball fan would know his name.

It all started on Opening Day: April 4, 2016. The Rockies visited Phoenix to face Zack Greinke and the Diamondbacks in front 48,165 fans. Rodgers was still developing in the minors, and the projected Opening Day starter, Jose Reyes, was serving a suspension for domestic violence. The Rockies needed a shortstop to fill in the gap, and they turned to Story who had won the job thanks to a strong spring training.

As the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, Story grounded out to third base in his first career PA. He came up yet again in the third inning, this time with two men on. Greinke delivered an 0 – 1 fastball to the outside part of the plate, and Story waited on the pitch, driving it just over the wall to the opposite field for the first hit of his career.

Story’s bomb helped the Rockies put together a six-run rally that inning to take a commanding lead against the Diamondbacks. But that day’s story wasn’t fully written just yet. One inning later, he hit another homer off Greinke, this time to left field.

 

What a debut for Story! But the Diamondbacks weren’t done feeling his wrath.

The very next day, the Rockies had another six-run rally. Who kicked it off? Who else but Story!

And the day after that? Yep, another home run for Story.

 

After the first series of his career, Story had four hits—all home runs. That’s a first in MLB history. Then, on April 8, he finally got to play in the home run haven of Coors Field.

In front out of a sold-out crowd of nearly 50,000 fans, Story got the first non-homer hit of his career, an RBI single to give the Rockies the lead. After that at-bat, Story realized that singles are no fun. You know what’s a lot of fun? Dingers.

 

With this fourth inning bomb, Story became the first player to homer in his first four career games. Whose record did he break? His own. It may be hard to believe, but he wasn’t close to done.

In the bottom of the ninth, Story just had to show off once again.

 

Unbelievable is right.

Through his first four games, Story had gone 7-for-19 with 6 HR and 11 RBIs. Although his streak ended the next day, Story sneaked out one more home run on April 10 to earn 7 HR in his first 6 career games.

After such a historic start, it’s hard to believe that Story could continue to live up to such massive hype. But surprisingly, five years later and Story is one of the most well-rounded players in the game, poised to rightfully earn a massive payday this offseason.

 

April 9, 1981 – Fernandomania!

 

Speaking of living up to insane hype…

In 1979, an 18-year old pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela debuted in the Mexican League. No reasonable person would have expected him to become an international superstar.

His performance attracted the attention of longtime Dodgers scout Mike Brito, who later discovered Julio Urias and Victor Gonzalez. $120,000 later, and Valenzuela found himself in the Dodgers organization. In the minors, Valenzuela worked with fellow reliever Bobby Castillo to develop a new pitch. There, Valenzuela first learned his legendary screwball.

It was a pitch made famous in the early years of the 20th century by Hall of Famers like Christy Mathewson and Carl Hubbell. With its awkward grip, mirrored-curveball action, and ability to ruin a pitcher’s elbow, it’s as rare to find in nature as a duck-billed platypus. The only modern screwball pitcher that I’m aware of is Rays minor leaguer Brent Honeywell.

Valenzuela’s first major league season in the bullpen was short, yet special. 17.2 IP, 0 ER. This performance gave the Dodgers enough confidence to move Valenzuela into the starting rotation. And in 1981, when a sudden injury to Jerry Reuss left the Dodgers without an Opening Day starter, they turned to Valenzuela.

This was a tall task. Their opponent, the Houston Astros, had finished with the best record in the National League the previous year. But the more critical issue was that Valenzuela had never made a major league start. How would this short and stocky, barely 20-year-old boy from Navojoa, Mexico fare in front of a sold-out Dodger Stadium?

Well, on April 9, Fernandomania began. Through nine innings, Valenzuela was absolutely dominant, neutralizing the Astros lineup with the poise of a well-traveled veteran. Hitters could not figure out his screwball as Valenzuela let up just one XBH. His final line? 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 2 BB, and 5 K. A complete-game shut out.

This game kicked off an absolutely legendary season that took Los Angeles by storm. In April, Valenzuela started five games. The result? Four CGSOs. The fifth game? 9 IP, 1 ER. His final line for April: 45 IP, 1 R, 43 K:11 BB.

Valenzuela kept up his dominance throughout the entire year, finishing with 13 W – 7 L, 2.48 ERA/135 ERA+, 2.44 FIP, 1.045 WHIP, 180 K:61 BB, 11 complete games, and eight shutouts in a strike-shortened season. He became the first and only pitcher to win ROY and Cy Young in the same year.

 

Fernandomania helped push the Dodgers to a 63 – 47 record and playoff berth, where they beat the Yankees in six games to win their first World Series since Sandy Koufax‘s penultimate season in 1965.

The 80s in Los Angeles belonged to El Toro.

Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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