By Matt Crossman
Great Opening Days can presage great seasons. Such was the case in 1940, when Cleveland ace Bob Feller threw the only Opening Day no-hitter in history and went on to have one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career, leading the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, complete games and shutouts.
Other times, great Opening Days presage nothing. Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day in 1994 and five more the rest of the season.
And sometimes crazy Opening Days presage crazy seasons -- even crazy postseasons -- as was the case in 1986, for the Red Sox and Angels.
Each team opened its 1986 season with unprecedented quick-strike moments -- first-pitch, leadoff home runs -- to stun opposing fans. More stunning to the home fans was the way each season ended with the worst losses in each franchise's history, two elongated moments of heartbreak.
It was pain the two teams experienced separately, but have since come to see they have in common.
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Three weeks before the Boston Red Sox opened the '86 season at Tiger Stadium, manager John McNamara asked rightfielder Dwight Evans if he would mind batting leadoff. Evans said he'd be happy to, and shortly thereafter, he had a dream he hit a first-pitch home run to lead off the season.
Evans said that when he was playing, he dreamed occasionally about baseball. Usually in those dreams he was running late for a game, couldn't find his undergarments or made an out. So, when he dreamed he hit a home run, especially one so specific, he told his wife, a few teammates and hitting coach Walt Hriniak.
He had no plans to make his dream reality. Hriniak didn't like when Evans tried to hit home runs, nor did Evans. They both knew it messed up his swing. As Evans took practice swings before the at-bat, Hriniak asked him what he was going to do. Evans said he would hit a line drive to center. Hriniak voiced his approval of that approach.
But Evans had second thoughts. He felt better than a line drive to center. He thought he knew what the first pitch would be. With fans cheering wildly and packed into Tiger Stadium, Evans thought the aggressive Jack Morris would open the season with a fastball.
Evans looked at teammate Marty Barrett and made a prediction. "I slammed that doughnut down on the mat and I said, 'Marty, I'm going deep on the first pitch.'"
And then he did, lashing the fastball over the fence and quieting the Detroit crowd.
You can't start a season better than a first-pitch, leadoff home run on Opening Day. "People always say, 'That record can never be broken,'" Evans said.
It can be tied.
And the very next day, it was.
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Angels second baseman Bobby Grich arrived at the Kingdome for the season opener against the Mariners, checked the lineup and found his name in an unusual place: leadoff. He had only batted in that spot in 63 of 1,910 career games, none in the previous three seasons. But Grich had hit the ball hard in spring training, so manager Gene Mauch rewarded him by placing his name atop the lineup.
As Grich stepped into the batter's box, his thought pattern followed Evans'. The crowd at the Kingdome, like the one at Tiger Stadium, buzzed in anticipation. So Grich thought Mariners starter Mike Moore would open the game with a fastball. Grich did not normally jump on the first pitch, but he figured now was the time to do so. He picked a reference spot to look for the ball, saw the ball there and tried to drive it to straightaway center. He drove it over the left-centerfield wall instead.
"Everybody was jacked up, a lot of noise, a lot of fun," he said. "Then, I remember by the time I hit second, you could hear a pin drop. The place went into shock."
Evans and the Red Sox lost on Opening Day, despite hitting four home runs off of Morris. Grich and the Angels lost, too, in an ending as historic as its beginning.
Jim Presley, now the Orioles' hitting coach, hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and came up again in the bottom of the 10th with bases loaded.
"That was probably one of the most exciting nights I've ever seen. That place was going berserk," Presley said. "At the Kingdome, the noise level is unbelievable. As a player, you kind of zone in, focus on what you're trying to do. Take those fans out of it. You can't get caught up in the moment and get all excited and overswing."
Presley said Angels pitcher Ken Forsch threw him a 3-2 slider, which he launched into the seats. By the time he touched second base on the walkoff grand slam, he knew he he'd remember that 360-foot jog for the rest of his life. He certainly remembers the noise.
As much as Grich had dulled the crowd, Presley had excited it -- twice. "That sound just echoes. It just gets louder and louder."
Research by Sean Forman at baseball-reference.com shows the Angels-Mariners game is the only one -- Opening Day or not -- dating to 1973 in which the first pitch was a home run and the last was a walkoff grand slam.
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The losses by the Angels and Red Sox obscured the uniqueness of what transpired: Forman's research also showed two teams never had before (or since) hit first-pitch-of-the-season home runs in the same year. "That's a crazy coincidence, that's for sure," Grich said.
The similarities don't end on Opening Day. The rest of the Sox's and Angels' season played out similarly. Both ran away with their divisions, building leads of double-digit games and spending more than 100 days in first. Both entered the postseason hungry -- the Red Sox had not won a title since 1918, and the Angels had never won one.
They met in the American League Championship Series, and in Game 5, the Angels led the series 3-1 and the game, 5-2, as the ninth inning started.
First Don Baylor made it a one-run game with a two-run homer. Then the Angels were one strike away from winning the series when Dave Henderson hit a two-run home run off of reliever Donnie Moore to give the Red Sox the lead.
Angels pitcher Kirk McCaskill watched the ninth inning in the clubhouse, where he was charting pitches. He looked around and saw clubhouse attendants had put plastic tarps over the lockers, to protect the contents from the champagne that was sure to be sprayed after the last out. "When Henderson hit that home run, it was shocking how fast all of that [tarp] was out of our clubhouse," he said.
And it wasn't just clubhouse attendants who prematurely thought the game was over. The umpires, players and police did, too. Umpire Larry Barnett -- who had been behind the plate for Evans' homer on Opening Day -- worked second base. Barnett looked into the dugout and saw Angels designated hitter Reggie Jackson and manager Gene Mauch preparing to celebrate. Police officers ringed the field, ready to keep fans in the seats and off the field. Then Henderson's homer changed everything.
"It looked like someone had dropped a bomb," Barnett said. "You were going to the World Series, and everything just changed so quickly. I think everyone was stunned. I know we were, umpiring. We thought it was over. It didn't work out that way."
Angels reliever Doug Corbett compared the swing of emotions to rides at Disneyland. "When I was growing up, Disney had e-tickets -- the best rides out there were e-tickets. That game was nothing but e-tickets, for one team than the other," he said. "Then you had to ride on Dumbo's ears."
The Angels tied the game in the ninth and had bases loaded with one out but ultimately lost in 11 innings. The series returned to Boston, where the Red Sox dominated both games.
The Angels' death was long, slow and painful. "I would never trade the experience of being there, but losing sucked," Corbett said. "It's devastating. That's why you see grown men cry."
So Corbett could relate, two weeks later, when the Red Sox lost the World Series in even more astonishing fashion.
In Game 6 of the World Series, the Red Sox had a two-run lead with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th. But three straight singles, a wild pitch and an error by first baseman Bill Buckner fueled an incredible collapse. Two days later, the Red Sox death -- also long, slow and painful -- was over, with the Mets winning Game 7, 8-5.
As Corbett watched the World Series on TV, he thought to himself, "Gosh, this is eerie, how close [the situations are], the swing of emotions that you go through when you're one pitch away from going to the World Series. They think they're going to win it all. It is uncanny how similar, and how painful, the losses were on both sides."
Six and a half months after Evans' season opened like a dream, it ended like a nightmare. Even 28 years later, Evans said, "That's still very real. I've never looked at the highlight films of that because it hurt so much."
He did get perspective on the loss from Bob Boone, the catcher on the 1986 Angels. Evans and Boone went on trips together, and on one of them, Boone brought up the similar ways their seasons ended.
"He looked at me, and he said it with kind of a condescending look on his face, 'How did that feel?' He's yelling at me. 'How did that feel? Now you know how we felt,'" Evans said. "Only then did I realize how much it hurt for them. Because we were deeply hurt. Bob's words of wisdom were pretty much right on."
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