The excitement of Opening Day is the culmination of a long winter waiting for baseball to return. Can this player turn it around? Can that player keep it going? Will this be the year? Where is the hot dog stand?
At 3:10 p.m. CT on April 13 (I won't even consider a four letter word that start with 'r' and ends with 'ain') the Royals will play their 44th home opener in Kansas City. The Royals open at home even at 3-3 after a six-game trip out west to start the season. A win would get the Royals franchise back to .500 in home openers -- we currently stand 21-22 overall and 19-20 at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' first home opener at Municipal Stadium on April 8, 1969, was an extra-inning win against the eventual American League West division champions -- the Minnesota Twins. The game was of course full of 'firsts,' but the most important was the first game-winning hit, which came from an unlikely hero in pinch-hitter Joe Keough. His one-out, bases-loaded single in the 12th inning off Dick Woodson scored Joe Foy. The Royals were off and running.
(Did you know the third-base umpire for that game in 1969 was making his Major League debut? It's true, his name is Don Denkinger. He began his 30-year career as a big league umpire that day).
Since then, there have been peaks and valleys for the club in home openers. Coming into 2012, the Royals have dropped three consecutive first games at home, but prior to that had won four of six. The longest winning streak in home openers came with five straight victories from 1975 through 1979. The longest drought was also five games, from 1986 through 1990. Prior to that five-game losing streak, the Royals were an impressive 12-5 in home openers over the franchise's first 17 seasons.
The seven Royals teams to reach the postseason have a 5-2 record in home openers, with wins in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1984 and 1985 and losses in 1980 and 1981.
So as not to jinx ourselves, again I won't say the four-letter 'r' word, but the only time a Royals home opener was not played on its scheduled date was in 1984 because of weather. Originally scheduled for April 2, the game was postponed and played the next day with the Royals defeating the New York Yankees, 4-2. Another unlikely hero got the scoring started, when the Royals leadoff hitter Onix Concepcion homered off Yankees ace Ron Guidry in the first inning. Concepcion had three home runs in his 1,040 at-bats as a member of the Royals, but that first one jolted the club to a home-opening win.
Perhaps the most memorable home opener in recent years came in 2004, when the Royals were trailing the Chicago White Sox, 7-3, entering the ninth inning. A sudden and nearly miraculous six-run rally electrified Kauffman Stadium, and once again it was an unlikely hero who led the way.
Mendy Lopez, a little-used utility man, was in his second stint with the Royals after originally signing as an amateur free agent in 1992. He played for the Royals in 1998-99, then for the Marlins, Astros and Pirates before returning to K.C. in 2003. On that day, he pinched hit for Matt Stairs, when White Sox reliever Damaso Marte entered the game with two on and a run home. Lopez had five home runs in his 151 games played with the Royals, but the biggest was on a 3-1 Marte offering that cleared the right-field wall and tied the game. Kansas City wasn't done. Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa followed with a single. Then, another Rookie of the Year (1999), Carlos Beltran, hit a bomb to right-center, and the Royals pulled off a miraculous 9-7 win.
It hasn't always been an unlikely player stepping up to get the Royals off on a winning note at home. In 1972, the Royals and White Sox battled at Municipal Stadium with no score through eight innings. Then, Dick Allen put the White Sox in front with a leadoff ninth-inning home run off Royals starter Dick Drago. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Bob Oliver returned the favor against White Sox knuckleball pitcher Wilbur Wood. Royals Hall of Famer John Mayberry won the game for Kansas City with a two-out single to drive in Paul Schaal in the 11th inning.
Mayberry was front and center again when Royals Stadium debuted on April 10, 1973. Fellow Royals Hall of Famer Paul Splittorff threw a complete game, giving up only five hits and a single run. The Royals offense scored a dozen runs against the Texas Rangers, which were then-managed by Whitey Herzog. Big John drove in four runs, including two in the fourth inning with the first home run in Royals Stadium history.
The 1985 home opener was an American League Championship Series preview against the Toronto Blue Jays. The game was not only a preview of the teams involved in the ALCS but also the 1985 Royals preferred method of attack that fall -- good pitching, timely hitting and, of course, a late-inning comeback. The only run Royals starter Bud Black surrendered was a second-inning sac fly to former Royal Buck Martinez. Dave Steib held the Royals scoreless until Willie Wilson drove in Daryl Motley and Concepcion with a two-out double in the seventh. Dan Quisenberry rescued Black from a two-out, two-on jam in the eighth, then slammed the door shut in the ninth to save the 2-1 win.
The excitement of the first game at home each season is really unmatched for both players and fans alike. The entire offseason and Spring Training have all been pointed squarely to this day.
Will a star player come through in the clutch moment? We've seen that before. Maybe an unknown reserve will step up and make an indelible mark on club history. We've seen that a few times as well. What will happen this time? I can't wait to find out.
Is it 3:10 yet?