Opening Day Memories

Every Opening Day is special in Cincinnati

The temperature was just 41 degrees, but a steady drizzle combined with a blustering wind to make it seem as if we were trudging into the Alaskan bush. I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets and soldiered on, one step after another, onward and upward.

I couldn’t have been happier. You see, I was at Riverfront Stadium on that chilly spring afternoon. It was my first Opening Day.

If you’ve had an opportunity to attend an Opening Day game and witness the festivities, the sheer joy of being back in the ol’ ball orchard…well, you know that it’s an extraordinary experience. And if you’re a teenager who is completely and utterly in love with that baseball team down by the river, you’ll never forget your first time.

For me, that was April 5, 1993. I vividly recall trudging up the steps, higher and higher, following my father and brother until we reached our red seats down the third base line at old Riverfront. What a glorious stadium! It’s now just a fading memory to those of us who were fortunate enough to experience it, and I hear all of you revisionist historians who want to tell me it was an ugly concrete structure that was — gasp — “multipurpose.” But make no mistake, on certain days during its prime, Riverfront Stadium was nothing short of heaven in Ohio.

On that day in 1993, I’m sure I made a point to step on those rubber expansion joints outside the stadium. Yes, I’m going to mention those as often as possible in this space. I have no choice. I miss them, and I believe they should have been incorporated into the design of Great American Ball Park. I will die on this hill.

Another thing: am I the only one who misses the seat colors from Riverfront Stadium? If you were in the blue seats, well, you were in high cotton. The green seats were fine, and I don’t know anyone who ever sat in the yellow. The red seats…those were the most special, to me anyway. Mostly because that’s where we sat most of the time as a kid. But also because there was something mythical about a “red seat home run.” If a Reds player accomplished that particular feat, he was a legend. They printed the list of red seat homers in the papers, after all!

Now, every seat at Great American Ball Park is red. How do you let your buddies know where you’re sitting, if you can’t say, “blue seats, first base line” or “red seats, top six, behind home plate”?

But I digress. Yes, the weather was bad and the stadium was a bit grimy that day. It always was. So what? It was Opening Day.

Opening Day always carries with it some element of hopefulness, and as the 1993 season approached, I felt pretty justified in my expectation that the Reds were going to be good. I hadn’t yet been jaded by years of inept play and lousy front office management. No, back then, the Reds had mostly been pretty good for my entire life.

I was a toddler when the Big Red Machine were doing their thing so I didn’t get to experience those high times, and the first Reds teams I fell in love with as a kid were the awful early-80s version. But later that decade, the Reds finished in second place four straight years and, of course, the 1990 wire to wire Reds had brought home a championship. That was still a recent memory at the time and, more recent still, the 1992 Reds had won 90 games and finished in second place in the old National League West division.

So I fully expected the 1993 Reds to be a contender as I settled into my cramped red seat along with 55,456 of my closest friends to watch the good guys take on those invaders from the north, the Montreal Expos.

Our conquering hero of the 1990 world champs, Sweet Lou Piniella, had moved over to the junior circuit. He had understandably tired of the circus atmosphere surrounding Reds ownership and the front office, but I was sad to have lost him to Seattle. In his place, however: a Cincinnati legend! Tony Perez, the bedrock of the Big Red Machine, was finally getting an opportunity to manage the Redlegs. Surely, this would be a perfect marriage, right?

The lineup Perez sent out for his very first game at the helm seemed awfully good to me:

  1. Bip Roberts                 2B

  2. Roberto Kelly              CF

  3. Barry Larkin                SS

  4. Kevin Mitchell             LF

  5. Chris Sabo                  3B

  6. Randy Milligan            1B

  7. Reggie Sanders          RF

  8. Joe Oliver                    C

  9. Jose Rijo                     P

First pitch was at 2:09 p.m. Jose Rijo rocked back in that easy motion and delivered to Montreal’s leadoff hitter, Delino DeShields. DeShields fouled it off, and the baseball season was underway.

Rijo, at age 27, was at the height of his powers. In five seasons for the Reds to that point, he was 64-38 with a 2.58 ERA and a magnificent 146 ERA+. He was a legitimate ace, making his second consecutive Opening Day start. Rijo ultimately surrendered a single to DeShields, but left him stranded, striking out two Expos in the first frame.

Nothing much happened until the bottom half of the second. In his first at-bat as a Red, former MVP Kevin Mitchell flew out to right to begin the inning. If you didn’t see Mitchell play, you’ll probably think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that I’ve never personally seen a better hitter wearing a Cincinnati uniform. Yes, he was often injured, and his glove left something (a lot) to be desired. But when he was on the field and in the lineup, he mashed. In parts of three seasons with the Reds, Mitchell hit .332/.414/.631 and let me tell you, every single ball off his bat seemed like a rocketship destined for the moon.

On this day, the rocketship petered out and fell harmlessly into the glove of Montreal’s Larry Walker. However, the next batter, Chris Sabo, took a 2-1 delivery from Expos starter Dennis Martinez — also an ace, even at age 38; Martinez had made three consecutive All-Star teams from 1990-92 — and deposited it over the left-center field wall to give the Reds a 1-0 edge.

Can we discuss Chris Sabo for a moment? He’s a Reds Hall of Famer, and people remember him fondly, but it’s easy to forget the mania surrounding him. He arrived on the scene as a rookie with a flat top hair cut and Rec-Specs goggles, and he emerged from that season with the Rookie of the Year award,  a cutesy nickname — Spuds Mackenzie — and legions of adoring fans in Reds country. In the years since, he had accumulated three All-Star nods, a .563 batting average in the World Series, and on this particular Opening Day, only Barry Larkin rivaled Sabo as Cincinnati’s most popular player.

Randy Milligan, signed as a free agent over the winter, then delivered a double down the left field line. With Reggie Sanders at the plate, Milligan advanced to third on a wild pitch. Alas, Milligan was stranded there when Sanders and Rijo struck out (with an intentional walk to Joe Oliver sandwiched between). For all we know, Milligan may have remained there until August 17, when he was traded up to Cleveland.

Rijo continued mowing down Expos hitters and the score was still 1-0 when we arrived at the bottom of the fifth. I was pretty chilly by this point, as the pregame adrenaline had worn off and a soggy ballpark frank just wasn’t helping matters any. Joe Oliver drew a leadoff walk. Rijo attempted to sacrifice him over, but Oliver was forced out at second. Bip Roberts then grounded back to the pitcher’s mound, but was able to prevent a double play by hustling down the line.

Roberts is another guy that seems lost to Reds history. He was a speedy second baseman who had made the All-Star team in 1992, his first season in Cincinnati after being acquired in a deal for one of the Nasty Boys, Randy Myers. That season, Roberts had hit .323/.393/.432 with six triples and 44 stolen bases and, sure, I was expecting more of the same in 1993.

Roberto Kelly was next. Aaah, Roberto Kelly. It was his first game for the Reds since coming over in that memorable off-season trade with the Yankees in which Paul O’Neill headed off to Gotham to become a star. I was a huge fan of O’Neill, but Kelly was an athletic center fielder who had made the American League All-Star team in 1992, so I was pretty optimistic that the Reds had gotten the better of that deal.

Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

Kelly collected an infield single — the second in his Reds debut — and after Barry Larkin walked, Mitchell’s infield single scored Roberts and the lead was increased to 2-0. The Reds had somehow managed to load the bases and score a run without hitting a ball out of the infield, and the RBI was collected on a measly infield single by the team’s biggest slugger. Baseball is crazy like that sometimes, you know.

Rijo and Martinez continued to trade punches through the sixth and seventh innings, and the game was speeding along. Rijo was at 96 pitches as he strode to the mound for inning number eight. On his first pitch of the frame, Montreal’s light-hitting catcher Tim Laker grounded a ball up the middle. Larkin fielded it, but his throw to first was errant. Laker ended up on second with an infield single followed by an error, and the Expos were in business.*

*I feel bad that Larkin has barely been mentioned in this piece, and I have to talk about an error he made. Sorry, Barry. You’re still a certified Cincinnati legend.

A groundout advanced Laker to third, where he stood with just one away as DeShields stepped into the batters box. Rijo quickly got behind 2 and 0, before DeShields fouled one off. He then lifted a high fly ball to left field. Remember earlier, when I was less-than-enthusiastic about Kevin Mitchell’s defensive prowess? Forget about it. As Laker prepared to tag up, Mitchell caught the ball and delivered a strike to Oliver at the plate, nailing the runner and securing an inning-ending double play.

We jumped to our feet in excitement. The entire season was going to be full of great moments like that, right?

In the ninth inning, snow flurries arrived. Snow? On Opening Day? Blasphemy! Nevertheless, the game continued with Perez opting to double switch Rob Dibble into the game to pitch the final inning.

I really sat up and took notice then. Dibble was legendary, of course, for being one of the Nasty Boys, the one with the dazzling fastball and out-of-control windup and delivery. Certainly, he had been magnificent to that point in his career, but he was also a bit…mercurial, shall we say? A couple of years earlier, he had chucked a baseball into the center field stands, striking a patron. And the previous September, Dibble had engaged in that well-publicized altercation with his manager Piniella.

But he was one of my favorite Reds at the time, so I was happy that I was getting to see both Dibble and Rijo on the same day. Dibble didn’t exactly have his best stuff. After inducing a popup for the first out, Marquis Grissom hit a ball to deep right-center that I was sure was destined for the blue seats out there. Fortunately, Sanders chased it down for out number two.

Then Larry Walker came to the plate. Walker was only 26, but already a star on his way to enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He proceeded to turn around a first pitch fastball from Dibble, resulting in the longest home run I have ever seen. I dunno, maybe I have actually seen longer ones and maybe my memory has faded over the years. But as I remember it, that ball got out of the park in a hurry.

We were on our feet. The lead had suddenly been halved, and we urged the home team to secure a victory to set them on the road to yet another wire to wire season. Dibble faced Frank Bolick next, a young third baseman who made his big league debut that fine April afternoon. Unfortunately for Bolick (but fortunately for me), his day ended with an 0-for-4 line after Dibble caught him looking for strike three.

The Reds had won, Rijo picked up the victory, Dibble got the save, and all was right in the world.  I left the ballpark on that day cold, wet, and as excited about the Reds as I had been in my entire life.

I was shocked back into reality soon. The Reds proceeded to lose their next four games, and nine of the next ten. Only eleven contests into the new season, Cincinnati was already in seventh — last — place, four and a half games behind the Giants. Then, just 44 games in, manager Perez was summarily fired by the general-manager-who-shall-not-be-named.

Better times were ahead in coming seasons, but 1993 was a dud. I didn’t know any of that as I walked between my dad and brother out of the stadium. No, as far as I was concerned, the ol’ Redlegs were great and they would always be great.

You know, all these years later…I still kinda feel that way.

(A version of this piece previously appeared at Reds Content Plus.)

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Blast From The Past

From 1993 Opening Day. Look at those horrific Good Humor Man Reds uniforms. Some familiar names lined up there, though:

If you have a Cincinnati sports-related picture you’d like to share here, send it my way (dotsonc@gmail.com). Only rule: it has to be a picture from before 2000.

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