Opening Day is always, of course, an exciting time for baseball fans, but it truly is something else when it’s played in the Bronx. Few franchises can trot out the former greats for the first game of the season quite like the Yankees. Although it might make some fans roll their eyes, it does make for a tremendous experience when legends like Yogi Berra are on the field.
The game itself sometimes becomes a bit of an afterthought after all the pregame fun. Seventeen years ago, that wasn’t the case. It was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the original Yankee Stadium, and the eventually iconic 1998 Yankees celebrated the occasion with a game unlike any previously seen at the historic venue. It had general chaos, blown leads, Matt Stairs, and excitement that fans of the current Yankees can only hope they match this afternoon.
It wasn’t Opening Day proper, as the ’98 campaign was already underway. The Yankees were off to a shaky beginning, as they had started the season 1-4 and needed back-to-back victories at the Kingdome to even start their first homestand at a game under .500. For most other fan bases, it would be an annoying start, yet tolerable. In crazy Yankee-land under George Steinbrenner though, that meant manager Joe Torre was already dealing with rumors about his job security being in question since his ’96 champions had flopped out of the playoffs in the first round the year prior.
Fortunately for Torre, this iteration of Steinbrenner was not quite as insane as the one who dumped Berra just a couple weeks into the 1985 season, and his team would go on to make such talk look even more ludicrous that year. It might have all begun with this rocking opener against the Oakland A’s. Then-Yankees beat writer Buster Olney had the best line about it when he said:
Joe DiMaggio threw out the first ball at the Yankees’ home opener yesterday, and the 10 pitchers who followed him on the mound labored to match his effort. DiMaggio worked fast and threw a strike. Most of the other pitchers did neither.
It all started so quietly, as starters David Cone and Jimmy Haynes threw scoreless first innings. April 10, 1998 just wasn’t going to be the near-Hall of Famer Cone’s day, though. Oakland kicked off the mayhem by batting around in a five-run second with two walks and four hits, the latter coming on a line drive two-run double to right by the slugging Stairs. Haynes promptly rewarded his offense with a leadoff walk in the bottom half of the frame that came back to bite him; two runs would score to make it 5-2.
In the fourth, Haynes just lost it, as he walked Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams, then allowed a booming three-run homer to Tino Martinez that tied it at five apiece. One more walk and Haynes was gone, to be replaced amusingly enough by future Yankee folk hero, Aaron Small. At age 25, Small was well on his way to becoming a journeyman with his third different franchise already, and this outing was about as good for his resume as anyone associated with Tank Girl.
Small yielded three straight hits to give the Yankees a 7-5 lead, and in the next inning, Darryl Strawberry crushed a three-run double that basically drove him from the ballgame. Jim Dougherty was next up to provide his manager Art Howe with his own unique styling on the word “relief,” granted with no help from his defense. By the end of the fourth, it was a blowout already at 12-5, Yankees.
Howe’s team went on to lose 88 games that year, but credit is deserved where it’s due—they were undeterred by this seven-run deficit with a former Cy Young Award winner on the mound in Cone. Four of the first five hitters in the fifth inning registered hits to make it 12-7, and Torre could no longer stick with Cone. Little-known reliever Darren Holmes entered for a three-batter cameo that resulted in no outs and some post-game Steinbrenner grumbling about “that young man from Colorado.”
In came 27-year-old rookie Mike Buddie, on the roster only because Mariano Rivera was recovering from a groin strain. In his third career game, the A’s showed no mercy, as Stairs reached on an error by former Oakland third baseman Scott Brosius, and future Yankee Jason Giambi and Dave Magadan followed with back-to-back singles. Improbably, Oakland had erased the entire seven-run deficit in one inning and now led, 13-12. The boos rained down from the fans on the collapse they were forced to witness.
For as shaky as the Yankees’ bullpen was in the fifth however, Dougherty was still in the game for the bottom half. Three batters later, the brief Oakland lead was gone already by virtue of another blow from Tino, a two-run double that scored O’Neill and Williams. Howe tried to keep Dougherty in despite another run crossing the plate, but he couldn’t even hold light-hitting catcher Joe Girardi at bay, and a single from the future skipper ended his afternoon. Chuck Knoblauch greeted new reliever T.J. Mathews with an RBI single. The inning ended with the score 16-13 and four more innings still to go.
The two teams finally had some normal pitching come through after the fifth, as only one more run was scored in the game with Mathews and Buddy Groom covering the last three innings for Oakland and bullpen weapons Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson combining for 3 ½ scoreless frames. When the carnage settled at the end of the game, the final score was 17-13, Yankees in a tidy four hours and six minutes.
No game in the history of Yankee Stadium had ever seen as much scoring in one contest, and luckily for the 56,717 in attendance, they were also part of a record crowd—it was the largest one at Yankee Stadium since it was remodeled in 1976. Those crazy first five innings were what people couldn’t stop talking about the next day though. They took two hours and 51 minutes to play, longer than eight of the other fourteen MLB games on the schedule. (Curt Schilling also tossed a 1-0, two-hit shutout over the Braves in exactly two hours, because of course he did.) The A’s and Yankees scored 29 runs on 28 hits and 14 walks.
After the game, Buster Olney heard from first base coach Jose Cardenal, who remarked, “This has got to be the most brutal game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Although it was exhausting for the players on the field, Yankees fans will never forget the thrill and excitement from it.
Here’s hoping for another fun affair at Yankee Stadium across the street 17 years later.
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