Opening Day Recollection (No Mailbag This Week)
Photo Courtesy of Al Bello, Getty Images
Before I get into today’s post, please note that the Weekly Mailbag will not run this week. Please continue to send your questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. We’ll be back with a mailbag next week.
Like many other people, I think that the lack of baseball has hit me pretty hard. While I didn’t expect yesterday to be any different, somehow I felt a renewed sense of sadness that Opening Day came and went without any baseball being played. However, I’ve tried to make the best of it. In fact, I even followed my Opening Day tradition: I listened to “Centerfield” by John Fogerty when I woke up. Following that tradition got me thinking about past Yankee Opening Days. Our own Michael Saffer told a great Opening Day story yesterday, so I thought I’d bring up a story of my own.
I have to admit, I have never been to an Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, or any other Major League ballpark. The story I’m going to tell did not even take place on MLB Opening Day, but rather the Yankee Home Opener at Yankee Stadium in 2003. The Yankees had a stacked roster, but there were multiple question marks surrounding the team within the first few games of the season. For one, Derek Jeter separated his shoulder in the first game of the season in Toronto, and stood to miss a large chunk of the season. It was the first time since 1995 that the Yankees would play a large stretch of games without Jeter captaining the infield. If it can be believed though, that was not the biggest question at the forefront of Yankee fans’ minds.
During the off-season, the Yankees signed the man that Japanese baseball fans called, “Godzilla.” Hideki Matsui was considered the modern Babe Ruth of Japanese Baseball, a monster at the plate who was the best power hitter the NPB had to offer. The Yankees signed Matsui to a 3-year, $21 million contract following a 50 HR campaign in the NPB. The contract surpassed the contract signed by Ichiro in 2001, and Yankee fans were skeptical that Matsui could live up to the hype. 14 year-old me was among the skeptics.
Through the season’s first few games, Matsui’s bat was quiet. As anyone who has followed the Yankees for years can tell you, the skeptics in New York grow loud very quickly when new players do not announce themselves with a signature Yankee moment, as evidenced by Giambi’s treatment by fans and media just the year prior. Matsui needed a Yankee moment, fast.
The Yankee Home Opener was not a day primed for good baseball. According to Baseball-Reference, the temperature at game time was 35 degrees, and I distinctly remember snow flurries just over the bridge in Jersey. As a die-hard Yankee fan that was known for wearing a Yankee shirt to school almost every day of the year, I was counting down the minutes until I could get out of school and watch the game. I got out of school and ran into the house in the top of the 5th inning, with the Yankees up 3-1 over the Twins.
In the bottom of the 5th, the Yankees loaded the bases, and Matsui came to the plate. As Matsui approached the plate, I got a call from a friend (and fellow Matsui-skeptic and Yankee die-hard) to make sure that I was watching, and we watched the at-bat together. Matsui expertly worked the count to full against Joe Mays…and then he did this:
My recollection may be fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure my family room was actually louder than Yankee Stadium in that moment. I became a Matsui believer with the crack of the bat during the Yankee Home Opener in 2003. Matsui would go on to have a fabulous career as a Yankee, capped with his MVP performance in the 2009 World Series, but Matsui’s Grand Slam during the home opener in 2003 will always be my favorite moment of his career. He silenced skeptics like me with grace and a ferocious swing.
I was not yet well-versed in advanced baseball metrics that were just beginning to enter public consciousness in 2003. Looking at the Baseball Reference game log, I see that Matsui’s Grand Slam was just tied for 3rd with regards to Win Probability Added. For a minute, I’m going to throw my love of statistics to the side. WPA couldn’t be right in this scenario. Not only was that Grand Slam the biggest of the game, but it may very well have been the most important homer that Matsui hit in his entire career. As much as I missed Opening Day this year, thinking about Matsui’s coming out party during the Yankee Home Opener in 2003 brought a smile to my face.