The Yankees' Opening Day lineup is set for tonight against the Houston Astros, and remarkably, five Yankees are appearing their first career games with the team. The big names are major free agent signings Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran, but infielders Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts will also be donning Yankees jerseys for the first time. Given the nature of baseball, the majority will probably have unremarkable debuts like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira did in 2009, unless Astros pitching decides to be especially awful tonight (which can't be ruled out by any means), but one or two of these newcomers could have first games worthy of remembrance. It's always nice to leave a solid first impression, and new Yankees of Opening Days past certainly did.
The Grandyman was known for two things during his four years in New York: dingers and whiffs. He provided both during his Opening Day debut in 2010, striking out for the first of 549 times in his Yankees career, but also belting the first of his 115 homers in pinstripes. Best of all, it occurred in his very first at-bat, on a full count pitch of a tough at-bat against a then-still good Yankees nemesis, Josh Beckett, and Granderson absolutely destroyed the payoff pitch:
It was a long way out to center field, but Granderson drove it 455 feet for the Yankees' longest homer of 2010. Unfortunately, his slugging debut was ruined by the... uncomfortable debut of reliever Chan Ho Park. Oh well.
The Yankees signed Boston's center fielder away from them during the 2005-06 off-season, and the now-clean shaven Damon immediately took his place at the top of the lineup with an excellent performance on Opening Day in Oakland. Although he fanned in his first at-bat, he lined an RBI single in his second, part of a seven-run inning capped by an Alex Rodriguez grand slam off Barry Zito. Damon doubled in his last two at-bats, the Yankees won a blowout over the eventual AL West champions, 15-2. It was their biggest Opening Day drubbing of another team in 51 years.
April 3, 2005 vs. Boston Red Sox, Yankee Stadium
6 IP, 1 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 6 K
The "Big Unit" had an up-and-down couple years in the Bronx, but he got off to a good start by beating the Yankees' biggest rivals on Opening Day with a refreshingly solid outing. As the Yankee Stadium crowd booed former Yankee David Wells on the mound for Boston (wearing #3, no less), Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui provided big hits in the decisive three-run third inning. Tony Womack also had a three-hit game in his Yankees debut, though none of his hits led to a rally and in fact his outs squelched a couple rallies. He was thankfully replaced at second base before too long.
Alex Rodriguez & Gary Sheffield
Much of the Yankees' first Opening Day was forgettable, as Mike Mussina was hit hard by a Devil Rays lineup that actually boasted pretty decent names in it, including former Yankee Tino Martinez. However, Gary Sheffield had a perfect debut after being signed to a three-year, $39 million deal in the off-season. A-Rod also registered a double and scored the run on Sheffield's double that briefly put the Yankees in a 3-2 lead during the sixth inning. Outside of them though, the Yankees' lineup only registered five baserunners against Victor Zambrano. Gross.
It was not the flashiest of debuts for the man hailed as "Godzilla," but it was highly relevant in that Hideki Matsui became the first Japanese position player to suit up for the Yankees. On the very first pitch he saw against eventual Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, he grounded a base hit through the left side, scoring Derek Jeter, who doubled:
Matsui later had an even bigger Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, when he belted a grand slam against Joe Mays. Although the Yankees won, that is all we will discuss about Opening Day 2003. Friggin' Ken Huckaby.
John Wetteland & Tony Fernandez
April 26, 1995 vs. Texas Rangers, Yankee Stadium
2-for-4, 2B, 2 R (Fernandez)
1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K (Wetteland)
Due to the long players' strike, it was a delayed Opening Day, but 1995 finally kicked off in late April and two new Yankees made themselves noticed. Shortstop prospect Derek Jeter had been considered for the Opening Day roster, but since he was recovering from an injury, the Yankees decided to sign former Blue Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez. Their closer, Steve Howe, was a perpetual question mark due to his drug problems, so when the Montreal Expos were letting their best players go in a quick firesale before the season, the Yankees acquired John Wetteland for spare parts. Both played a role in the season-opening 8-6 win over Texas, longtime captain Don Mattingly's final opener. Also participating was a young up-and-coming center fielder named Bernie Wililams, who slugged a homer against reliever Terry Burrows.
Fernandez registered two hits and score two runs, and Wetteland abandoned his normal high-wire act in favor of a perfect ninth inning to secure his first of 74 saves in pinstripes before turning the closer's job over to some Rivera kid. Fernandez wasn't particularly good in '95, and the Yankees did eventually tab Jeter to be their shortstop in '96, Wetteland would go on to recover from an awful '95 postseason to have a terrific '96, locking down World Series MVP honors in the end.
Paul O'Neill & Jimmy Key
A new-look Yankees team took the field with a new ace and right fielder for Opening Day '93. After failed pursuits of Greg Maddux and David Cone, the Yankees signed former division rival Jimmy Key from the Blue Jays, and they swapped All-Star outfielders with the Reds, dealing Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neill. Both newcomers got off to a strong start during a 9-1 victory in Cleveland. Key was perfect in six of his eight innings, allowing just a few hits and a run on a sacrifice fly. O'Neill had a multi-hit game and scored on a three-run homer by catcher Matt Nokes. In the home opener the next week, O'Neill was even better, going 4-for-4 and falling just a homer shy of the cycle. Key would be crucial (or, sorry, key) to the Yankees' '96 championship, and O'Neill remained a stable presence throughout the late '90s dynasty.
April 9, 1981 vs. Texas Rangers, Yankee Stadium
2-for-3, 2 BB, R
The Yankees made a splash during the 1980-81 off-season by signing former Padres All-Star Dave Winfield to a 10-year, $15 million deal, the biggest in baseball history at the time. They went to the World Series in his first season as a Yankee, the only one in which he paired with slugger Reggie Jackson to form a devastating Hall of Fame duo in the middle of the lineup. Winfield walked in his first at-bat, then notched two singles, including the leadoff hit in a five-run seventh capped by Bobby Murcer's pinch-hit grand slam. The Yankees crushed the Rangers, 10-3.
April 7, 1977 vs. Milwaukee Brewers, Yankee Stadium
2-for-4, 2 R
You just knew that Reggie would find a way onto this post. Signed to a five-year, $2.96 million contract prior to '77, Jackson immediately made an impact by tallying two hits and scoring two of the three runs in the Yankees' 3-0 opening victory over the Brewers. Some power was actually provided by former Astros "toy cannon" Jimmy Wynn, but Reggie went with the small ball approach on this afternoon. He hit a leadoff single in the fifth and scored on a squeeze play called by Billy Martin and executed perfectly by Willie Randolph, then hit a leadoff single in the sixth and eventually scored on a wild pitch. It was, of course, the beginning of a tumultuous but championship season for "Mr. October" and the Yankees.
April 16, 1960 vs. Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park
4-for-5, 2B, 2 HR, BB, 4 RBI, 2 R
Dial up the wayback machine. Maris might have had the greatest Opening Day debut of any Yankee in history, as he demolished Boston pitching for 11 total bases in an 8-4 win. Curiously batting leadoff by manager Casey Stengel's edict, he took starter Tom Brewer deep to right field twice, foreshadowing his back-to-back AL MVP seasons and still-AL record 61-homer campaign in '61. Both squads ran roughshod over the American League, reaching the first two of five World Series in a row, winning in '61 and '62.
New Yankees can only dream of opening games like Maris's. Take note, McCann, Ellsbury, and Beltran. (You know they're obviously up on the blog beat.) Hell, if Roberts wants to go deep twice in the opener and stun all of us, he is more than welcome. Play ball.