What we're missing: MLB stars share their best opening day memories

Tim Brown, Hannah Keyser and Mike Oz
·13 min read

It would have been opening day Thursday. Should have been.

The day hope springs eternal — even, and especially, for the Mets. The day we get a glimpse of stars in new colors, or future stars reaching new levels. The day every team’s ace takes the mound.

Instead, we are waiting. Baseball, like nearly everything else on the planet, is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not clear when it will be back, but for now we have to do without this rite of spring.

The game, though, is nothing if not nostalgic. So on what would have, should have been the dawn of a new season, we asked people around the game — from superstars to role players — about their favorite opening day memories. To hold you over until we can start creating them again.

(Photo illustration by Amber Matsumoto, Yahoo Sports)
(Photo illustration by Amber Matsumoto, Yahoo Sports)

Nolan Arenado

Rockies third baseman, 5-time All-Star

My first opening day in Colorado was in 2014. I went 0-for-5, struck out twice, popped up twice and then sat through an entire dinner of my dad telling me I needed to get on top of the ball.

It was amazing.

This was April 4, a Friday afternoon, and technically our home opener, four days after starting the season in Miami.

I got my first Gold Glove before the game. I was announced to the first-base line, batting seventh. A jet flew over the heads of almost 50,000 people, including me. I’d never seen anything like it.

(From left) Coach Rene Lachemann, Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado and coach Stu Cole walk off the field after opening ceremonies. The Colorado Rockies hosted the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Rockies season home opener at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado Friday, April 4, 2014. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Nolan Arenado received his first Gold Glove award the same day he played his first home opener in Colorado. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

My entire family — parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins — were in the seats at Coors Field to watch it all with me. And also, afterward, they were at the table to listen to my dad’s hitting tips. The next day, I had three hits, two of them home runs. - As told to Tim Brown

Clayton Kershaw

Dodgers pitcher, 3-time Cy Young winner

On the morning of my favorite opening day, last year’s, I drove carpool. I drove to Joc Pederson’s house, and to Justin Turner’s house, and to Rich Hill’s house, picked them up at their curbs and drove to Dodger Stadium. I wasn’t pitching that day, for the first time in nine years. It was a shoulder thing.

My preference would have been to pitch. My preference is to pitch all of the rest of them, for as long as I can. I was scheduled to pitch this year’s.

The experience of 2019’s opening day, however, the first time in a long time I’d been a spectator for one, was a lot of fun. Eight home runs, two by Joc. Fifty-three thousand people having a great time. Rather than the stress of preparing and performing, grinding out every pitch, I was able to look around, stand with my teammates and enjoy it. It was special.

And I hope I never have to do it again. - As told to Tim Brown

Alex Rodriguez

Former 3-time MVP and superstar lightning rod turned ESPN broadcaster

Hadn’t I just been standing on a high school field in the suburbs of Miami? Hadn’t there been maybe 200 people there? Am I really a teammate of the Michael Jordan of baseball? And of the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation too?

On March 31, 1996, inside the Kingdome, staring up at 57,000 people, I had one more question.

ANAHEIM - 1996:  Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners looks during an MLB game versus the Los Angeles Angels at Edison International Field in Anaheim, California during the 1996 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
After two brief stints in the majors, Alex Rodriguez got his first opening day experience in 1996. He would go on to bat .358 and finish second in AL MVP voting that season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Are my knees shaking?

Turned out they were.

I was 20, with 65 major league games and a .224 batting average behind me. There was Ken Griffey Jr. There was Edgar Martinez. Already legends.

So I felt fortunate and grateful and nervous. I also wondered what I was doing there, among great players and in front of all those people.

I was batting ninth, was what I was doing, and hoping not to foul it up for everyone else, and also hoping no one could see my knees. - As told to Tim Brown

John Kruk

Former 3-time All-Star slugger, Phillies TV analyst

It was opening day, 1986. It just so happened to be played at Dodger Stadium, and it was also my first big league game. Fernando Valenzuela was pitching for the Dodgers, and since I played the four previous winters in Mexico I knew all about Fernando. I was not starting that day so I was lucky enough to be able to take it all in — Fernando pitching, a full house in Dodger Stadium, I was a nervous wreck.

I did get in the game, of all things as a pinch runner! I know, it shocked me also.

It was late in the game (top of the ninth). I pinch-ran at first, Kevin McReynolds was on third, Carmelo Martinez batting. I was told if the first pitch was a ball the hit-and-run was on second pitch. I knew Fernando had a great move to first so our first base coach tells me, “You are not stealing second base, so don't get picked off.”

It all backfired. I got a horrible jump, Carmelo didn't put the ball in play and I was out by a mile! As I was running off the field my mind went to, I'm not sure I can play at this level with how nervous I was. Thank goodness I got over the nervousness somewhat, got to play a few more years. - As told to Hannah Keyser

Jim Abbott

Inspiring former pitcher, born without a right hand, who played in 10 MLB seasons

In the spring of 1993, an opening day at Yankee Stadium, there were police. There were bomb-sniffing dogs. A month-and-a-half before, there’d been a bomb at the World Trade Center. I sat in my underwear, a T-shirt and flip-flops in an otherwise quiet clubhouse and watched very serious dogs lead very serious men into every corner.

The manager, Buck Showalter, had scheduled me for the home opener. There’d be a full house, the people there renewing their love for baseball and hope for a new season. The Yankees were beginning to show life after a sleepy decade.

The stadium, what it symbolized, what it would house again, had such depth to it. To stand in the middle of it on what seemed an important afternoon was a gift. The place shone red, white and blue. The lineup did it justice — Bernie Williams, then Wade Boggs, then Don Mattingly, then Danny Tartabull, then Paul O’Neill.

I’d been traded from Anaheim four months before. As the new guy, I’d hoped to introduce myself well, to feel the embrace of the city and its baseball fans. I pitched well. We won. It was a new beginning. And a wonderful day. - As told to Tim Brown

Bud Selig

Commissioner emeritus, Hall of Famer and former Milwaukee Brewers owner

I can’t give you one. I can give you three.

April 7, 1970 was about the happiest day of my life. Baseball returned to Milwaukee after five years. We were clobbered by the California Angels, 12-0, but it was the only game the Brewers ever played where I didn’t care who won. That they were here, in Milwaukee, was enough. Not everyone felt as I did, however. Afterward, I was walking down one of the ramps and a man stopped me.

“You Bud Selig?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you wanted a team in the worst way and that’s what you got.”

BRONX, NY - CIRCA 1975: Outfielder Hank Aaron #44 Of the Milwaukee Brewers swings and watches the flight of his ball against the New York Yankees circa 1975 during a Major League Baseball game at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York. Aaron played for the Brewers from 1975-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Legendary slugger Hank Aaron played his final seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, having spent much of his career in the city with the Braves before they moved to Atlanta.

On April 11, 1975, Hank Aaron came home to Milwaukee. He was 41 years old and had left his best seasons in Atlanta and his first time in Milwaukee. But nearly 50,000 people filled County Stadium and every one of them joined in the singing of “Welcome Home, Henry,” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” I can still hear it.

And, on April 10, 1980, Sixto Lezcano hit two home runs against the Boston Red Sox. The first was against Dennis Eckersley. The second against Dick Drago, a grand slam with two out in the ninth inning to win. Paul Molitor, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas scored ahead of him. That was really something. - As told to Tim Brown

Dan Plesac

Former 3-time All-Star hurler and MLB Network analyst

My first career opening day in 1986 with Milwaukee was extra special because we opened up against the White Sox and I grew up a diehard White Sox fan. I was 24 years old and I remember it feeling surreal that I was standing on the field inside Comiskey Park when I grew up going there as a fan. Mike Ditka threw out the first pitch because the Bears had just won the Super Bowl, and I remember Teddy Higuera throwing a great game against the Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. You never forget your first opening day as a player and I still get goosebumps talking about it. - As told to Mike Oz

Al Leiter

Former pitcher who won two World Series, MLB Network analyst

I’ll never forget opening day in 1994 when I was with Toronto. As the defending World Series champs, we received our rings on opening day. I distinctly remember the smile on the faces of Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston when they handed me my ring. It was just a big day and the crowd was rocking. I selfishly remember thinking, 'OK, I’m back.' I was past my surgeries and blister problems and I felt ready to get the second half of my career going in the right direction. - As told to Mike Oz

Jamie Moyer

Former All-Star starter who pitched in 25 MLB seasons

All of them were special because it marks basically a new year, a new season — a new life with teammates and the journey you’re going to be on for the next six-plus months. But I started one opening day — I was in Seattle. It was against the Red Sox in 2000, and at the time Pedro was Pedro. And Pedro Martinez, if you look at his history, dominated against the Mariners. So having that opportunity, I loved it, it was a challenge. But all Pedro had to do was throw his glove on the ground and he beat us.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 28:  Pedro Martinez #45 and Jamie Moyer #50 of the Philadelphia Phillies talk during pregame festivities against the New York Yankees in Game One of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on October 28, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Pedro Martinez and Jamie Moyer, who faced off on opening day in 2000, later wound up as teammates on the 2009 Phillies. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I think we ended up losing (2-0, Martinez went seven innings and struck out 11). But it was my first opening day start and I didn’t get many of them. And I realized, you know, I wasn’t a No. 1 type. Wasn’t a Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden type of starter. But to have honors like that, it’s very, very special. And I'm sure there aren't any pitchers that take that for granted. - As told to Hannah Keyser

Tommy La Stella

Angels infielder who made his first All-Star team in 2019

For the opener of the 2015 season at Wrigley Field, the temperature started in the low 40s and got colder, the breath of wind from center field became a hard exhale, we were shivering and then shut out, and yet the sense that day — from the dugout to the last seat of the last row of the bleachers — was the Chicago Cubs were just getting warmed up.

I batted ninth, behind Jon Lester, who’d never had a professional hit (a streak that lasted into July). So there was that. Adam Wainwright broke my bat leading off the third inning. The ball found its way to the outfield grass. Otherwise, Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen chewed us up pretty good.

And none of those details matched the enthusiasm that night for the Cubs, for us, who we could be and what we were to become after five consecutive fifth-place finishes in the NL Central. Some opening days are little more than game one of 162, but not that opening day. It was the night the Cubs and baseball in Chicago came back to life. - As told to Tim Brown

Mark DeRosa

Longtime utilityman turned MLB Network analyst

I’ll always remember opening day in 2007 when we were in Cincinnati. The fans came out in droves for the parade and it felt like we were back in Little League. The whole city rallied around opening day. It was an incredibly cool scene and it was the start of a big year for me with the Cubs, so I’ll never forget that one. - As told to Mike Oz

Chris Young

Former All-Star pitcher, recently promoted MLB senior vice president

Opening day, when you take the line with your teammates, that national anthem moment, that’s when you get chills and realize how special it is. I had 11 or 12 opening days. They were all special in their own right. But probably the most unique opening day that I can share, the one that stands out the most, was an opening day that took place in September.

For the movie “Fever Pitch.”

Actor Jimmy Fallon waves to the crowd after filming a scene from "Fever Pitch" the Farrelly Brother's new film, after the Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts (Photo by Marc Andrew Deley/FilmMagic)
As part of filming the Jimmy Fallon movie "Fever Pitch," pitcher Chris Young made a September start in a Fenway Park set up to pretend it was opening day. (Photo by Marc Andrew Deley/FilmMagic)

They were recreating opening day for the movie at Fenway Park, but it was September 4. I was a rookie and it was my third MLB start. I was called up in late August. For me, not having experienced a real opening day yet, it was pretty surreal. It took on an even bigger feel because they were creating this opening day atmosphere for a movie.

They had Stephen King throwing out the first pitch. They had a huge American flag presentation on the Green Monster. There was a child who was signing the national anthem. I threw one pitch in the movie. Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore were in the stands filming. My wife said she could see them, but I was locked in, worrying about the Red Sox. It turned out to be the year they broke the curse.

That’s the one my wife and I joke about as my best opening day. The movie was on MLB Network the other day, and we were watching it. - As told to Mike Oz

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