If you haven’t heard already, real baseball is back today.
Come September 30th, Opening Day may very well be an afterthought, just another game in a schedule comprised of 162. But even if it’s a feeling that doesn’t survive past Tax Day, there is a novelty to the birth of a new regular season. What SB Nation’s own Jon Bois said of March Madness also applies to the genesis of regular season baseball.
In theory, everyone gets a shot at the title. Everyone gets to play. Everyone gets to dream. In practice, victory is hoarded by a predestined few. But the rest are still permitted to hope, because hope costs nothing.
The price of hope is indeed zero. And for 29 legions of baseball fans–
let’s not kid ourselves here, Marlins fans–Opening Day could be the first chapter of a truly magical run. From a wizard’s emphatic backflip to a stallion’s walk-off heroics, Opening Day has kindled numerous memories for a Cardinals franchise rich in fond moments.
With the first pitch from Citi Field just hours away (or already a thing of the past depending on what time you are reading this post), I decided to look back on the greatest opening acts in Cardinals history. For batters, I enlisted the metric RE24, which according to FanGraphs “measures the change in run expectancy from the beginning of a player’s plate appearance to the end of it. Run expectancy is the average number of runs an average team would be expected to score during the remainder of the inning based on the location of the base runners and the number of outs.” I constructed an all-time Opening Day lineup with the highest single-game mark at each position.
To determine a starting pitcher, I used Bill James’ game score metric. A pitcher begins at 50 points and subsequently gains or loses points based on the outcome of each plate appearance.
With assistance from the Baseball-Reference Play Index, we begin our trip down memory lane at catcher.
Catcher: Darrell Porter, 1984 (3.365 RE24)
After the host Dodgers rocked St. Louis starter Dave LaPoint for three runs in the bottom of the first, the Cardinals’ backstop began 1984 the best way possible: with a home run off Fernando Valenzuela in the second inning. The Cardinals chipped into the Los Angeles lead with another run in the third before Willie McGee smacked a leadoff single in the top of the fourth. Porter promptly tripled McGee home to open the floodgates for a five-run inning to chase Valenzuela. The Cardinals would never relinquish the lead as Porter added a third hit, drew a walk, and cut down would-be base thief Ken Landreaux in an 11-7 victory.
First Baseman: Albert Pujols, 2010 (4.468 RE24)
Posting by far the highest RE24 of anybody on this list, the encore to Pujols’ unanimous MVP season began by turning Great American Ballpark into a chorus of boos with this solo blast.
The Cardinals and Reds swapped two-run frames in the fourth as Pujols singled in the fifth, eventually coming around to score on an Aaron Harang error. He then launched a two-run homer in the seventh and tallied another hit amidst a five-run ninth inning that iced an 11-6 win over Cincinnati.
Second Baseman: Frankie Frisch, 1928 (3.314 RE24)
The Cardinals’ pennant-winning campaign began with a matchup against the reigning NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates. A Frisch double into left field paved the way for a three-run bottom of the first in the Gateway City. He also scored after reaching on a third inning error before doubling and scoring again on a Jim Bottomley homer in the fifth. Frisch lifted a homer of his own to plate three in the sixth and walked and stole second in the seventh en route to a 14-7 win, the first of 95 that year.
Third Baseman: Scott Rolen, 2006 (3.380 RE24)
Rolen began 2006 on the road against the Phillies, the organization he spent the first 11 years of his professional career with. Batting fifth behind Pujols and Jim Edmonds, Rolen atoned for his first inning strikeout with a single and grand slam in the same inning to cap an eight-run outburst in the fourth. He wasn’t done, either, collecting a third hit in his next at-bat to back Chris Carpenter in a 13-5 drubbing. You might recall that club going on to win the World Series, giving me yet another excuse to show these videos.
Shortstop: Dal Maxvill, 1967 (2.476 RE24)
Speaking of World Series champions, the 1967 Cardinals (i.e. the original El Birdos) embarked on their pursuit of 101 wins and the eighth title in franchise history with a 6-0 shutout over the Giants, who would finish 10.5 games behind St. Louis for second place in the NL standings. Glove-first shortstop Dal Maxvill never hit better than .253 or slug higher than .298 in his 14-year career, but on Opening Day 1967, the 8-hole hitter stroked a leadoff single off Juan Marichal before scoring on Lou Brock’s two-run homer in the second inning. Maxvill drove home the Cardinals’ third run with a base hit up the middle in the bottom of the fifth prior to singling and scoring again versus Marichal in the seventh.
Left Fielder: Wally Roettger, 1928 (3.300 RE24)
As if Frisch’s three RBI on Opening Day 1928 weren’t enough, Roettger helped the cause by pouring on five himself. In the first, he doubled in a pair of runners to extend the Cardinals’ lead to 3-0. He followed that up by gifting St. Louis righty Jesse Haines more run support in the bottom of the third with a sacrifice fly. Roettger then singled home two more in sixth and scored after the Phillies committed three errors in the eighth as Haines went the distance to seal the victory.
Center Fielder: Ray Lankford, 1994 (2.931 RE24)
The strike-shortened 1994 season opened in Cincinnati for the Cardinals, where Lankford wasted no time belting a leadoff homer off Jose Rijo, who finished the previous year fifth in Cy Young voting. Cardinals starter Bob Tewksbury surrendered three runs in the second, but an RBI single from Lankford led the way as St. Louis rallied to tie the game the very next inning. His third hit of the day was a ninth-inning double while Mike Perez locked down the 6-4 win with a pair of strikeouts.
Right Fielder: Ray Blades, 1932 (3.292 RE24)
The defending world champs leapt out of the gate in 1932, building a 5-0 lead after two innings thanks to a single and two-run double off the bat of Blades. He added an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth as the Cardinals pummeled the Pirates by a 10-2 final.
Starting Pitcher: Bob Gibson, 1967 (90 game score)
Of the 17,263 regular season starts made by Cardinals pitchers since 1908, the earliest year on Play Index record, Gibson’s first outing of 1967 wasn’t just the greatest pitching performance in St. Louis Opening Day history, it was one of the elite starts in all of Cardinals lore. His game score of 90 is tied for 31st best in a nine-inning game, most notably equal to Ray Washburn and Bud Smith’s no-hitters in 1968 and 2001, respectively.
A lineup boasting the likes of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey didn’t faze Gibson as he fanned the first five Giants to step to the plate. The only significant scoring threat for San Francisco came in the top of the third inning when three consecutive singles loaded the bases, putting the tying run at first with just one out for #2 hitter Jesus Alou. With Mays looming on-deck and McCovey in the hole, Gibson induced a ground ball to first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who stepped on the bag for one and fired the ball back to catcher Tim McCarver to nab the runner headed home, completing the double play and retiring the side unscathed. The final line for Gibson read: nine innings, five hits, 13 strikeouts, zero walks, zero runs, and one Cardinal winner. Later that year, Gibson was named 1967 World Series MVP behind a spotless 3-0 record in three complete games as the Cardinals downed the Red Sox in seven games.
Will today’s contest between the Cardinals and Mets feature any performances of historic proportions? I suppose only time will tell. One thing I do know for a fact is that this will be my first Opening Day here at Viva El Birdos. It doesn’t feel like 8-9 months have passed since managing editor emeritus Craig Edwards brought me onboard, but the nearly six month wait for Cardinals baseball to return has felt like an eternity. We’re all obviously hoping for an end to St. Louis’ truly cataclysmic playoff drought, but either way I’ll continue to read every single comment you leave for me. So as I begin my first full season as a member of this wonderful community, we gather today to celebrate the unofficial conclusion of winter.
Let’s go Cards!