To me, there has always been way too much aggrandizing about Opening Day in baseball. Opening is just the first of 162 and rarely has any true impact on the season. Better yet, unless it’s totally extraordinary, Opening Day is never memorable.There is no significant action.
But the last game of the season – that’s when the memories are made.
Game 162 is the time for heroes and for the real pros to step into the spotlight. Even when teams are just playing out the string, the last game of the year is like running that final 385 yards of the marathon. Anybody can do the first 26 miles, but it’s that last stretch where legacies are defined.
As a kid I also romanticized about the last game of the year and suffered the wide-eyed, Field of Dreams-types during Opening Day. I was more interested in the guts of the action and not the first few easy strides of the race, which meant I spent all summer figuring out what it was going to take for a team to make the last day the most important one.
Sometimes I got lucky, too. I can recall being at the Vet for Game 162 in 1991 when David Cone of the Mets struck out 19 against a Phillies club that featured Doug Lindsey and Braulio Castillo. In fact, Cone had a shot to tie the all-time record for strikeouts in a game after he whiffed the first two hitters to start the ninth inning. But Wes Chamberlain doubled and Dale Murphy – a player who lead the National League in strikeouts three times and ranks 13th on the all-time whiffs list – grounded out to end the season. The Vet seemed empty that day with most of the crowd holding Walkmen to listen to the Eagles’ early-season loss at Tampa Bay with Brad Goebel at quarterback, but when Cone had a chance to tie the record it was the loudest the fans were all day.
I also was at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the final day of the 1982 regular season where the Orioles nearly pulled off a stunning comeback to win the AL East. Trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by three games heading into the final, four-game series, the Orioles won the opener with Dennis and Tippy Martinez on the mound, and swept a Saturday doubleheader by a combined score of 18-4 to make the last game of the year a do-or-die situation. Any good Milwaukeean can tell you what happened in that Sunday finale.
Ben Oglivie made a sliding catch on the gravel warning track in left, Robin Yount pounded two homers off Jim Palmer by the third inning, and Don Sutton mesmerized the Orioles for eight innings in Earl Weaver’s last game as the Brewers went on from there to an improbable playoff run.
And I was there.
I’ll be there on Sunday when the Phillies attempt to pull off what the Orioles could not in 1982. Trailing the juggernaut New York Mets by seven games just two weeks ago, the Phillies go into Game 162 all tied and with a chance to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. There is no doubt that the day will be filled with craziness of the type that we will discuss for years to come. This time, though, I won’t be sitting near folks more interested in listening to out-of-town football scores or packed in tight in the left-field bleachers at long since torn down baseball parks. This time I’ll get to see the protective plastic sheeting that had been secured into place late last night when the Phillies took over first place (for less than 24 hours) lowered to stop champagne spray. Or maybe I’ll see ballplayers cry over the missed opportunities of a season stopped too short. But then again, maybe I’ll see a team prepare for Game 163 on Monday to settle the season in winner-take-all fashion. Either way, this is a lot more exciting than any Opening Day could ever be.