Opening Day is nearly here, with all the pomp and circumstance that comes along with it. Starting on Opening Day is a great honor, usually given to those the team expects to rely on for that season. But sometimes fate steps in and causes an unlikely character to fill in for the first game of the year. Here are the unlikeliest Opening Day starters in Royals history.
Catcher - Hector Ortiz, 2001
Salvador Pérez has started the most Opening Days at catcher with six, but perhaps the most unlikely starter was Hector Ortiz, a journeyman minor leaguer. He bounced around from the Dodgers to the Cubs before he finally made his Major League debut in 1998 at the age of 28, appearing in four games in September for the Royals. The Dodgers took him back the next year before he rejoined the Royals in 2000, hitting .386 in 26 games. He was supposed to be the backup in 2001, but when starter Gregg Zaun got hurt at the end of camp, he became the Opening Day starter.
Ortiz had a really good attitude for a player that bounced around so much. ”I thought about quitting a couple of times back in ‘97,” he told reporters before his Opening Day start. “But that’s not going to happen again until I get very old and they kick me out of this game.” He would hit .247/.293/.299 in 56 games that season, and would finally retire for good after 2005.
Others: Brian Johnson (2000), Tim Spehr (1997)
First Base - Frank Schwindel, 2019
Remember Frank the Tank? Schwindel was a Triple-A star, hitting 41 home runs for Omaha in 2017-18. But the Royals signed free agent Lucas Duda, which seemed to block any chance Schwindel had to make the club. A hot spring training performance forced the Royals to carry him, however, and with lefty Carlos Rodon starting for the White Sox on Opening Day, Schwindel got the start over lefties Duda and Ryan O’Hearn.
“I don’t think I can even explain how it feels today.”
Unfortunately, Schwindel would go 0-fo-4 and would get just one hit in 15 tries before the Royals sent him back down, and he has not been in the big leagues since then, spending last year in the Tigers organization.
Others: Kila Ka’aihue (2011), Ryan McBroom (2020)
Second Base - Mark Teahen, 2009
It is not surprising that Mark Teahen was in an Opening Day starting lineup for the Royals, after all, he was a solid .269/.331/.419 hitter in his five-year career in Kansas City. What was unlikely was that he was in the starting lineup at second base. Teahen played in 532 games in his first four years in the big leagues, and not a single one was spent at second base. Primarily a third baseman, Teahen had tried moving to right field in 2007 to make room for rookie Alex Gordon. But after the Royals acquired Jose Guillen and Coco Crisp to join David DeJesus in the outfield, there was nowhere left for Teahen in the starting lineup - unless he was willing to learn second base.
“At least I have some kind of a background for playing the infield,” Teahen said. “I had nothing when I went to the outfield.”
Despite standing 6’3’’ and missing time in camp to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, the Royals went with Teahen at second base to start the year. The experiment lasted just three games - Gordon got hurt early in the year, and Teahen went back to his familiar third base.
Others: Ruben Gotay (2005), Chris Owings (2019)
Shortstop - Felix Martinez, 1998
When Jay Bell departed as a free agent following the 1997 season, the Royals had no one internally to replace him, and no money to go out and find a MLB-quality player. The best they could do was promote Omaha shortstop Felix Martinez. He had never hit much in the minors, but had some speed and some raw tools. He also made 36 errors in 112 games for Omaha. But the Royals thought he had enough range to make up for his wild throws.
“If he makes 50 errors, he’ll help us win more games,’’ Muser said. ``I think he’s a plus guy.”
He would only make six errors for the Royals, because he would only appear in 32 games. By June, he was hitting just .131, and when the Royals and Angels got into a bench-clearing brawl, Martinez sucker-punched Angels infielder Frank Bolick. That was enough to earn him a demotion to Omaha for the rest of the season, and he would only play six more games for the Royals in his career.
Others: Bobby Floyd (1972), David Howard (1992)
Third Base - Greg Pryor, 1984
Hall of Famer George Brett was a mainstay at third, starting 12 Opening Days for the Royals at that position, more than anyone else in club history. But when he tore his knee ligament in spring training of 1984, the Opening Day assignment fell to his understudy, Greg Pryor. The 34-year old veteran had filled in for an ailing Brett before, but was coming off a .217 season, a bit of a drop-off from the .310-hitting Brett.
“I’ll do what I can do, but I can’t do more than what I’m capable of.”
Pryor would collect two hits on Opening Day, but would hit just .230/.267/.330 until Brett returned on May 16, The Royals slumped to a 13-20 start in his absence, but would rally and take a surprise division title that year.
Others: Willie Bloomquist (2010), Keith Miller (1993)
Left Field - Hal Morris, 1998
Hal Morris was a “professional hitter” who hit .305 in ten seasons with the Reds, but found a weak market for his abilities in 1998. He signed with the Royals to be their designated hitter, so of course his first game with them came in left field. The Royals expected to have an outfield of Jeff Conine, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye, but when Conine got hurt in spring training, and Dye failed to make the team out of camp, the Royals had some holes. The 33-year old Morris had just nine career outfield starts up to that point, but on Opening Day he patrolled left field while first baseman Larry Sutton patrolled right. Morris wouldn’t last long in left field though. By mid-game first baseman Jeff King experienced back tightness and was pulled, with Sutton moving to first. An inning later, Sutton switched places with Morris for the rest of the game. Morris hit .309 and appeared in 39 games in left for the Royals that year before high-tailing it back to Cincinnati the next season.
Others: Ross Gload (2007), Gary Thurman (1991)
Center Field - Bubba Starling, 2020
When Bubba Starling was selected as the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft, it was with the expectation that he would one day be patrolling centerfield at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Day. Little did we know his first Opening Day start would come nine years later after posting an OPS of .572 the previous season. The 2020 season was a bizarre one, starting in July due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which would rob the Royals of right fielder Hunter Dozier to begin the year. That pressed Bubba into service in center, pushing Whit Merrifield to right.
Others: Billy Hamilton (2019), Steve Hovley (1972)
Right Field - Reymond Fuentes, 2016
On Opening Day in 2016, the Royals got to raise their championship banner with all their star players on the field - Salvador Pérez, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and....Reymond Fuentes? The Royals elected not to bring back starting right fielder Alex Rios from their championship club, and Jarrod Dyson was expected to get more playing time in the outfield in his absence. But Dyson suffered an oblique injury, creating an positional battle that Fuentes won by beating out Paulo Orlando, Brett Eibner, and Jose Martinez. The cousin of former Royals outfielder Carlos Beltrán, Fuentes would last just 13 games with the Royals.
Others: Brandon Berger (2003), Larry Sutton (1998)
Designated Hitter - Cheslor Cuthbert, 2018
The Royals had talked for years about a revolving door at designated hitter to allow more positional flexibility, and in 2018 they actually did it. They used 18 different players at DH, with no one getting more than 30 starts at the position (Salvy actually got the most starts there!). Cheslor Cuthbert would get the first crack at the DH spot, and while he would go 1-for-3 with an RBI, he wouldn’t live up to the “hitter” aspect of the position much that season, finishing under the Mendoza line.
Others: Calvin Pickering (2004), Larry Sutton (1999)
Pitcher - Runelvys Hernandez, 2003
Most of these unlikely starters got their chance through injury. Runelvys Hernandez got his through the flip of a coin. The Royals had a wide open competition for the pitching staff in 2003, but Hernandez was one of the most “proven” pitchers after looking decent in 12 starts in his rookie season in 2002. Midway through camp it was clear that both he and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt were the most talented of the journeymen and not-ready-for-prime time pitchers the Royals had assembled. Manager Tony Peña couldn’t decide which would start on Opening Day, so he left it to chance.
“I believe both of those kids deserved the opportunity to be the opening day pitcher,” Pena said. “I don’t want either one of them to feel bad about it. So we just flipped a coin.”
The coin flip turned out to be a huge success. Hernandez tossed six shutout innings in a 3-0 win, the first of nine consecutive victories to begin the year, spurring an unexpected hot start and summer of contention for the Royals.
Others: Scott Elarton (2006), Jose Lima (2005)