A very worthy question might well be what is the magic of 40 years? Why not 50, or 35? How about 23 or 47? Great question, simple answer! 40 years ago this April, my opening day coming out party arrived, and what more magical place to start than 1964; still the most beloved team in all my Philadelphia Phillie history.
Yes, friends, it was in 1964 that I
truly remember for the first time what Opening Day meant, and how it could
transform a young school boy into a squirming, thoughtless student all day! I remember that day like it was
yesterday, and how I believed Gene Mauch when he said that team was special, and
we would all see it… beginning on Opening Day.
In fact, the Phils did win that Opening Day [actually it was a night game but still early on the Left Coast] 5-3 when ageless Roy Sievers hit a first inning three-run home run and rookie Richie Allen doubled in a big run late. That win catapulted the Phils into first place after one day, a spot they would occupy until a late season meltdown taught me the adage "things always work out for the best" was not true at all.
Nevertheless, I learned of the magic of Opening Day and have been a faithful and devoted follower ever since. And though I have learned that opening day success does not always transfer into either a successful season or a disaster waiting to happen, it still is fun to speculate. So, lets examine the past 40 Years of Opening Days and see what we can find.
First things first, the Phils record on opening day during the past 40 years is an abysmal 15-25. In fact, after winning the first three years, from 1964-66, the record sinks to 12-25, meaning the Phils win less than a third of the time on opening day. This, Phillie phanatics, does not bode well for today!
In terms of winning and losing streaks, the longest stretch of winning was the original three, in '64, '65 and '66. The longest losing streak was 8 straight opening day losses, beginning in 1985 and continuing on through 1992. Perhaps not coincidentally, that streak was stopped by another magical group of Phillies, the 1993 team, which won in the Astrodome 3-1.
In fact, both the '64 and '93 teams took their cues from Opening Day wins and jumped into the league lead right from the start. The ill-fated Mauchmen of '64 started the season with a 10-2 record, while Jim Fregosi's merry band of renegades opening the '93 season with eight wins in nine games, and basically never looked back until Joe Carter ended their season one lonely October evening in Toronto.
If its well pitched games that enamor your soul, the Phils have tossed 5 shutouts on Opening Day, three by Chris Short and one each by Steve Carlton and Curt Schilling. Ironically, all of Short's whitewashes were by identical 2-0 scores. Conversely, the Phils have been shut out 5 times, none more painful than the 14 innings 1-0 loss in NY in 1998.
Realistically, there has been little evidence that winning on opening day was a harbinger of good fortune. Certainly, the 1976, ‘77 and ‘78 division winners were among the greatest Phillie teams of all time, yet each lost on opening day. Yet, the 1980 World Champs parlayed a Greg Luzinski home run into a 6-3 win over Montreal on opening day…and 161 games later, those same Expos were one game behind the Phillies.
By the same token, the '68, ‘70 and '97 teams were among the worst Phillie nines in the past 40 years, yet each won on opening day! Again, on a more ironic note, each of those three triumphs was by shutouts, two by Short and one by Schilling.
Speaking of shutouts, runs have normally been at a premium on opening day, both for the Phils and their opposition. In fact, the 8 runs scored last year in a 8-5 win over eventually World Champion Florida is the second most ever scored by a Phillie team in the past 40 years. The highest total was 12, not surprisingly by the 1994 club in an opening day 12-6 win over the Rockies at Coors Field.
The highest total of runs scored against the Phils on opening day was 8, and that was done once. On three separate occasions, all in Phillie losses, the opposition scored 7 runs. In total runs scored over the past 40 years, the Phils have 128 while the opponents have scored 146. So a score of 4-3 Pirates, would not be a surprise given the past 40 years.
Not surprisingly, given the fact that ace hurlers normally pitch on Opening Day, the scores have not only generally been low, but close. Twelve games have ended in 1 run ballgames, with the Phils amazingly losing 10 of them. So the chances are excellent that should the score end 4-3, it will end in a Phillie loss!
Of course, there have been many
thrilling games on Opening Day, and the Phils have had more than their share of
heroes. Besides the dazzling
pitching of the two best lefties in Phillie history, Chris Short and Steve
Carlton, other hurlers of note have included Schilling and lefty Terry Mulholland.
Short has won 4 opening day
assignments, followed by Carlton's 3 and Schilling's 2. Other first game winners include
Mulholland, current Phillie pitchers Amaury Telemaco and Kevin Millwood, and
other nondescript pitchers like Johnny Klippstein, Bobby Munoz and Mac
Speaking of Scarce is a reminder of perhaps the most exciting Phillie win on opening day during the past 40 years. It occurred in 1974, and in many ways set the tone for the most successful decade in Phillie history, a period that lasted through 1983. It was a classic opening day battle between future Hall of fame hurlers Tom Seaver of the Mets and Carlton of the Phils.
Veterans Stadium was only three years old and over 40,000 fans came to watch the "new look" Phillies, with their young lineup of Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Willie Montanez and Mike Schmidt bolstered by second baseman, Dave Cash. Cash had been acquired in a controversial winter deal involving popular lefty Ken Brett, and his dash and daring would prove invaluable to a Phillie team on the cusp of greatness.
As often happened when Seaver and
Carlton locked horns, the Met's righty had the early upper hand and led 3-1
after 5 innings. Carlton left for a
pinch hitter and the Phils quickly tied the game with a two run rally in the
sixth. However, the Mets quickly
reclaimed a 4-3 lead in the top of the seventh inning, and Sever turned the one
lead over to ace lefty closer Tug McGraw in the eighth inning.
McGraw quickly retired the Phils in the bottom of the eighth and after Scarce pitched a scoreless ninth, the Phils came up for their last at bats. All spring, Cash had worked his verbal magic on this Phils team, telling every one of the talents of Bowa, Luzinski and Schmidt.
Many Phils will tell you that it was on this day, in this ninth inning that Michael Jack Schmidt began his quest of greatness, which ultimately would lead to the Hall of Fame. Up to this point, he was a player with a .186 average from his rookie year in 1973, and an 0-3 day up to this point.
Yet, after Tony Taylor singled and
Boone made out to first base, Schmidt faced McGraw in a classic battle, a
confrontation that would have lasting effects for both players. McGraw quickly got ahead of Schmidt 1-2
and tried to throw his dazzling screwball past Schmidt.
History would record that Schmidt
sent a majestic drive deep into the left field seats, giving the Phils an
improbable 5-4 victory. Pandemonium set in at the Vet, and as Schmidt
triumphantly rounded the bases, Dave Cash could be heard to yell, "Yes We Can!"
a phrase that would become the rallying cry of the 1974 Phillies.
This victory would provide the impetus to a solid season for the Phils, and a record setting career for Schmidt. Though an injury to Luzinski in June would keep this Phillie team from the playoffs, it was clear that this was a team on the rise. Division titles in 76-78 and a World Series title in 1980 could well have charted their course from that opening day in 1974 when Mike Schmidt set a course for greatness with one swing of the bat.
As for 2004, who can be sure of the outcome? Perhaps Pat Burrell will take a page out of Schmidt's book and slug a home run that will forever change the course of his career. Maybe 1st baseman Jim Thome will emulate Roy Sievers and hit a first inning three run home run to lead the Phils to victory, and another magical season?
Possibly Kevin Millwood will become the first Phillie starter since Short to record back to back opening day victories? Maybe Billy Wagner will mimic another lefty with an overpowering fastball, Mitch Williams, and save a game on opening day?
Is there any other recent history that may well let us know of the possible outcome of this game? In fact, there is. Beginning in 1996, the Phils have displayed an unusual consistency of winning and losing games on alternating years. In 1996, ‘98, 2000, and '02, the Phils lost in the even years, while recording wins in 1997, '99, 2001 and last year in 2003.
One needn't be reminded that 2004
is an even year, and if the Phils follow this strange custom, the Pittsburgh Pirates will make the Phils walk the plank in defeat. Regardless of the outcome, new heroes
await, and another season beckons, one filled with hope and anticipation.
Perhaps in 2044, somewhere in another column, a writer will be reminiscing about the past 40 years, and start as his point of reference…the year 2004, when he first discovered the magic of opening day, and recalled how in that now famous Phillie-Pirates game… a lasting memory was made.
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. CD from the Left Coast