With his permission, I’m taking Matthew LaMar’s idea of the Recap Coda series and warping it to my own ends for an entry or two. One could easily argue that from the mid-90s until about 2013, there was very little significance to even the most “notable” game played during that 20 year stretch. But for today’s entry, we’re going to pick apart the most notable game in that stretch: Opening Day 2004.
(Kevin hint: maybe another author would like to tackle the Ken Harvey game).
- Final Score: White Sox 7, Royals 9
- Time of Game: 2 hours 46 minutes
- Attendance: 41,575
- Royals Review Recap Headline: Did not exist yet
- Box score: Baseball-Reference
Here is a partial list of things I’ve called 2004 Opening Day on Royals Review: “the happiest day for like 8 years”, “the absolute best moment of Royals recent history” (in 2009), “fun for a week”, “4-2 and then dumpster fire”, “amazing and then into the toilet so quickly”, “amazing and then... a sled ride into crap”, “a tease”, “a cruel joke”, and “the baseball equivalent of a solid gold hood ornament on an 83 Honda Civic hatchback held together by duct tape”. At one point I combined them all: “2004: An amazing Opening Day, a 4-2 record, and then complete dumpster fire of a season”.
To put this into context, you have to look at 2003. The Royals had surprisingly surpassed .500 on the backs of burgeoning superstar Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney*, a youth movement of Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, Ken Harvey, stud prospect Dee Brown, and a ton of young pitching of varying quality (Runelvys Hernandez, Kyle Snyder, Chris George, Mike MacDougal, Jeremy Affeldt, D.J. Carrasco, Jimmy Gobble). They had even tried to bolster their roster with deals for Curtis Leskanic, Graeme Lloyd, Brian Anderson, and Rondell White.
*For those who don’t remember, Mike Sweeney, “the man who stayed”, had a clause in his contract that, to my knowledge, has never been duplicated. You can’t put in individual performance clauses like “contract vests if player hits 20 HRs” but somehow the union allowed one based on team performance. His contract was only guaranteed for two years but if the Royals finished .500 or above in one of the first two years, the an additional three years vested. It didn’t work out but many were really happy about getting to 81 wins in 2003.
In the offs-eason, a couple of key cogs like Raul Ibanez and Jose Lima left. But December 1 delivered promising news with Anderson, Leskanic, and longtime Royal Joe Randa all re-signing for 2004. Soon after, other pieces like Jason Grimsley, Matt Stairs, Tony Graffanino, and Scott Sullivan started trickling in. The “centerpiece moves”, though, were adding veteran free agent All-Stars Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez. They had some injury concerns, but were not all too far removed from terrific seasons. They were cheap moves for a cheap team but, if just enough things broke right, maybe the team could build on their 83 wins from 2003 and possibly even contend for a playoff spot. Opening Day did nothing to temper this optimism.
A little personal context: around 2009, a Yankees fan I worked with asked me about my best baseball memory and I mentioned this game as my favorite Royals memory. He looked at me and said something like "Opening Day? Seriously?" He wasn’t trying to be mean; it was just pure pity.
I don’t remember how the game started. To be honest, I think I was at class for the bulk of the game. And this was before you could just watch the game on your phone or computer. The Royals Sports Television Network (RTSN), was the team’s response to Fox Sports Midwest cutting the number of games the team would show prior to the 2003 network. YES and NESN on the East Coast were helping bring even more economic inequality to the Yankees and Red Sox so Kansas City tried its hand at a regional sports network, hoping to keep up with the big boys. In Lawrence, this was broadcast on channel 6, which was (still is?) basically public access television. Most of their programming consisted of aspiring broadcasters plying their trade in very local looking news, bar trivia, a cooking show that looked filmed in someone’s actual kitchen, and the like.
Whenever I got home from class to my old apartment, I caught up with the game on my computer. The aforementioned Anderson had been named Opening Day starter. In the second inning, Paul Konerko, who, looking at his stats, was less of a Royal-killer than I remembered (but still had a good enough season to garner some MVP votes), doubled home Frank Thomas and Carlos Lee. Sandy Alomar, in the twilight of his career, brought PK home on a 2-run shot and the White Sox had the early 4-0 lead.
Mark Buehrle, who did distinctly own the Royals with 26 career wins against them, started for the South Siders. He scuffled a little in the bottom half of the frame with Gonzalez and Harvey singling and then Santiago plating a run. The rest of the way, though, he would only surrender two more runs, one on a Santiago solo homer and another on an Aaron Guiel RBI. For the White Sox, Lee hit one out in the 4th and they picked up a pair in the 7th off of Shawn Camp with RBIs from Jose Valentin and Magglio Ordonez. (at some point, these stories are also about bringing up some names from the past)
Really, though, the 9th was the stage. The Royals were down 7-3 on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium in front of 41,575 fans with (likely unrealistically) high expectations. Cliff Politte, on his fourth team in seven MLB seasons, came in for mop up duty. But he walked Randa and hit Harvey with a pitch to lead off the inning. I’m sure Denny Matthews had something to say about it and the crowd started buzzing.
Looking back, I’m trying to decipher what the White Sox were doing with their bullpen in 2003. They won 86 games and were in first as late as September 14th, finishing in second place, four games behind Minnesota so they were trying to actually win ballgames. But they rotated between three closers during the year: Tom Gordon, Damaso Marte, and Billy Koch. All of them started the year with the team* and each picked up more than 10 saves. The White Sox traded for Koch in December 2002, coming off a 44 save season for Toronto. But he was ineffective and removed from the role. Marte took over for a while and then Gordon later in the season.
*meaning a trade deadline acquisition didn’t upset the balance
Flash departed in the 2003 offseason but Koch and Marte remained in the back of the Sox bullpen. Also, that offseason, White Sox skipper Jerry Manuel was replaced by the enigmatic Ozzie Guillen. In his first game as an MLB manager, I’m not sure if his plan was to (as Mr. Burns would say) “play the percentages” by bringing in the right-handed Koch to face righty Santiago or if he was the closer on a short leash. Either way, the former Blue Jays closer gave up a double, which scored Randa and put runners at second and third with one out. However, he was left in to face the lefty Guiel, who he struck out on four pitches.
This is where the baseball chess gets a little weird and I can’t entirely understand or confirm what happened. It appeared the lefty Stairs was sent up to pinch hit for Graffanino (who had pinch run for Desi Relaford in the third, presumably due to injury?). So even though Koch could handle left-hander Aaron Guiel, Manuel goes to left handed Marte to face the left-handed Stairs. In response, Royals manager (of the year, 2003!) Tony Pena sends Mendy Lopez to the plate.
A sampling of Mendy Lopez’s career numbers: 463 PA, .242 BA, 6 HR, and 65 OPS+. He has about as many words on his Wikipedia page about his time spent in the Korean, Mexican, and Dominican leagues as his time in MLB. By comparison, Matt Stairs had 6024 PA, .262 BA, 265 HR (he hit 38 one year!), and 117 OPS+. ESPN described the story, as follows:
“Manager Tony Pena first started to send Matt Stairs up to pinch hit for Lopez. Pena changed his mind when he remembered Lopez had faced Marte in winter ball. "I just called him in and said hit a home run," said a grinning Pena. "And he did it."”
"I never hit a ball that far in my life," Lopez said. "Opening day. It's the biggest thing I ever did in my life in baseball." To me, it was always a little weird that all the highlights and recaps point to Beltran. That home run: Mendy’s home run. That was the one that was so inexplicable, so unexpected, so baseball.
MLBAM was founded in 2000, but it wasn’t nearly the force it is now. There were no highlights from back then, though you can see the Opening Day 2004 webpage still up at mlb.com. Heck, I’m happy the Getty image archive has pictures going back that far so I can provide a few here. The only video I can find of the home run is a grainy video on youtube, clearly taken from someone in the stands. Spoiler: if you want to see what happened next, there’s a similarly grainy video.
Once the stadium died down slightly from its loudest din in nearly 20 years, Berroa worked a 3-2 count before singling to left. Then on a 2-2 count, Beltran homered to end the game. From the CBS article cited above:
“’I will never forget that feeling as I ran around the bases,’ Beltran said.” And fans felt it, too. After more than a decade in the wilderness, the team was ready to be relevant again. At least that’s how it felt for one day (and even for a week).
The team started 4-2, but then “Believe” faded into “Together We Can” and they lost six in row and 18 of 22. Tony Pena tried the fully-uniformed-shower motivational technique. Gonzalez and Santiago played in 82 games combined as nagging injuries went from day-to-day to weeks to months. They were both probably either on PEDs or coming off of using them in 2003. Carlos Beltran was traded at the deadline, signaling the end of the previous rebuild (the cash-strapped and offense-based teams of the early 2000s) and starting the next failed rebuild (DDJ-Teahen-Buck) that would ultimately cost Allard Baird his job as GM. The 2003 season was revealed to be the real fluke, a winning season fueled by luck and career years, nestled among the 100-loss seasons of 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006.*
If one wanted to draw the franchise history as a straight line, this led into the failed Billy Butler-Alex Gordon-Zack Greinke rebuild of the late 00s. Which finally flourished after the Greinke trade and the BFSIHOW (“best farm system in the history of whatever”) culminated in the 2014 AL pennant and 2015 World Series title. However, for those keeping track at home: that’s at least four failed rebuilds with this game being one of the best things to show for it. Be careful what you wish for with rebuilds: sometimes you end up with an Opening Day as your highlight of the decade. Though, to be fair, it was quite the Opening Day.