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The best opening day

Let’s have a parade!

Bob Feller No Hitter

“A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road” – Yogi Berra

Now that the baseball lockout is over we can start thinking about Opening Day. All baseball fans love Opening Day, right? Every team starts with a clean slate and at least mathematically, has a chance to win the World Series. Opening Day in baseball is a bit like the first day of school, that day when you get to see friends you hadn’t seen all summer. You can see who grew a few inches, or who got prettier. Even the teachers seemed happy to see you. Eventually, that feeling wore off and was replaced by the day-to-day drudgery of classes. Same with baseball. After the pomp and circumstance of opening day, it becomes a seven-month marathon of attrition.

Speaking of Opening Day, does any city do it better than Cincinnati? Opening day in Cincy has been a local holiday dating back to 1920. They even have a parade, the Findlay Market Opening Day parade. I’ve got to check this out sometime.

For the Royals, there were two Opening Days that stick out in my memory. One was 1969 of course, when the brand-new Royals defeated the Minnesota Twins 4-to-3 in 12 innings. That game had a “Major League” feel to it as most of the players had only met in spring training. One, Lou Piniella, had only arrived a week before the opener, having been stolen from the Seattle Pilots, one of the first in a series of terrific trades by General Manager Cedric Tallis. No problem for Sweet Lou. He settled into his leadoff spot and promptly spanked four hits in five at-bats, putting him on course to win the 1969 Rookie of the Year. Joe Keough, originally chosen in the 1965 amateur draft by the Kansas City Athletics, won that game with a pinch-hit single. Keough, who passed away in 2019, had a promising Royals career cut short after a grisly broken leg suffered in a 1970 game.

The second memorable opening day came in 2004. The 2003 Royals had surprised everyone by holding the division lead most of the summer. They were not expected to be a contender, but on July 23rd, they held a five-game division lead. They were tied for first as late as August 29th before losing 17 of their last 30 games. They limped home with an 83-79 record, good for a third-place finish.

On April 5, 2004, 41,575 packed into Kauffman to see if the 2004 squad was the real deal. Brian Anderson (Brian Anderson!?) got the start for the Royals while Mark Buehrle took the mound for the White Sox. I had to look up Anderson to refresh my memory. I was surprised to see that he fashioned a 13-year Major League career. He pitched parts of three seasons for the Royals, appearing in 48 games and making 39 starts.

Back to Opening Day. The Royals entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 7-to-3. It didn’t look good. Joe Randa drew a leadoff walk. Ken Harvey followed with another walk. Benito Santiago roped a double to left, scoring Randa. Aaron Guiel struck out. Mendy Lopez came to the plate and on a 3-1 pitch, stroked a home run over the 410 mark in center field to tie the score and send the crowd into hysterics. The home run was the 6th and final home run of Lopez’s career. He would play his final game in the big leagues on May 27th that summer, but for one at-bat, he was a legend.

After Lopez’s blow, winning the game seemed inevitable. The crowd was rocking when Angel Berroa laced a single to left. Carlos Beltran then stepped in against Damaso Marte. He worked the count to two balls, two strikes before knocking a fastball off the Mountain Dew sign above the left-field fountains, giving the Royals the 9-to-7 walk-off victory. The high wouldn’t last long. Beltran would be gone on June 24th, traded to Houston. The Royals scuffed into the All-Star break at 31-54. Tony Pena had managed to hold the 2003 team together with duct tape and baling twine. Sometimes you can do that for a year. Billy Martin was a master at getting teams to play above their heads. Eventually, talent rises to the top and the 2004 Royals didn’t have enough of it.

The greatest Opening Day ever, occurred on April 16th, 1940, when 21-year-old Bob Feller, starting his fifth season in the big leagues, threw the only Opening dDy no-hitter in major league history. At the time, World War Two had only been going for eight months. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war was still 20 months away.

Only 14,000 fans braved the 40-degree temps to come out to Comiskey Park on Chicago’s south side that day. It was a tight game until the Indians managed to scrape up a run in the fourth inning. Jeff Heath clipped a one-out single and scored on a triple by Rollie Hemsley. And that was it. The Sox threatened in the second, when they loaded the bases on an error and two walks, but Feller got Bob Kennedy on a strikeout to end the inning. Feller faced another test in the mninth. Hall of Famer Luke Appling battled Feller in a ten-pitch at-bat before drawing a walk. Feller walked five White Sox on the day, blaming the wildness on a wayward curveball. After walking four of the first eleven batters he faced, Feller realized his curve was off and threw almost all fastballs. At one point he retired 20 White Sox in a row, before Appling drew his ninth inning walk.

The no-hitter was saved when Cleveland second baseman Ray Mack made a diving stop on a hard-hit ball by Taffy Wright to end the game. That description is kind of clinical. The reality was much more exciting. Wright, who always hit well against Feller, hit a scorching line drive to the left of Mack. Mack dove and knocked the ball down. He scrambled to his feet, retrieved the ball from short right field and threw out the speedy Wright by half a step, saving Feller’s no-hitter.

Bob Feller W/Other Players Joking Around

It wasn’t one of Feller’s best outings, but he did strike out eight White Sox batters on the day. 1940 ended up being the best of Feller’s illustrious career. He won a career-high 27 games which led the American League. He also posted league-leading totals in ERA (2.61), complete games (31), shutouts (4), innings pitched (320.1) and strikeouts (261). He also finished 2nd in the MVP vote, behind Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg.

The Heater from Van Meter would miss the entire 1942, 1943, and 1944 seasons, as well as most of the 1945 season due to his service in World War II. In the five complete seasons bracketing the war years (1939-41, 1946-47), Rapid Robert posted an astounding 122-59 record with 1,311 strikeouts. I doubt we’ll ever see anything like that again in our lifetimes.

Due to the no-hitter, the White Sox became the answer to one of baseball’s great trivia questions: The only time each player on a team finished a game with the same batting average with which they started. The no-hitter was the first of three that Feller would throw in his career. He also threw an astounding 12 one-hitters. The opening day no-no was especially sweet for Feller as it was witnessed by his parents and sister, who made the trip from Van Meter.

The only other opening day no-hitter on record occurred on May 5, 1946 when Leon Day of the Negro Leagues Newark Eagles no-hit the Philadelphia Stars.