Over the course of their history, the Mariners have played 42 Opening Day games. Of those, just 15 have been on the road, thanks partly to an audience-building initiative wherein the 1977-1981 Mariners, in the team’s infancy, received five consecutive true home openers. This might explain why the Mariners have had only started at home twice in the last decade. The Mariners tend to play well on Opening Day with an overall 26-15 record and a home opener record of 16-10, including their current four-game winning streak. Yet there’s an argument that last night’s 2-1 victory over Cleveland was the sweetest of all the 16.
To be fair, a lot of these wins are less two titans duking it out, and more “two dizzy bat participants attacking each other with soggy loaves of French bread.” The 1978 Mariners won against the Twins, who would wind up in the middle of what was then the AL West (the Mariners would end at 56-104). A win against the 1980 Blue Jays, similar cellar-dwellers, also failed to stir the blood. The 60-win 1995 Detroit Tigers. Gaylord Perry blowing a three-run lead against the 1983 Yankees with back-to-back homers given up and the Mariners small-balling in a run to win is about as Mariners a victory as one could get in those early years.
Sure, there were highlights: Wins against the 1979 California Angels, who would end up in first place in the AL West, as well as the 92-win 1986 Angels. An extra-innings victory in 1984 against a solid Toronto team, as well as an 8-1 win against the 1993 Jays, eventual World Series champs, bolstered by a 3-run Griffey blast. But so many of the victories were generic: solid performances against unspectacular teams, featuring winning pitchers like Sean Green and Bryan Clark and Edwin Hurtado.
There are really only five contenders for best-ever home opener:
The Mariners snatch a victory away from David Cone and the 96-win Yankees, who rolled out this lineup: Jeter, Boggs, Bernie Williams, Cecil Fielder, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry, Mariano Duncan, and Joe Girardi. The Mariners started Jeff Fassero and something called a Lee Tinsley. Ken Griffey Jr. hit two bombs off Cone, Russ Davis hit one, and the Mariners emerged victorious.
The Mariners need 12 innings to take down the White Sox, 3-2. Randy Johnson pitches seven innings and records 14 strikeouts, but makes one mistake: a two-run homer to Frank Thomas. Meanwhile, the Mariner offense flops around like a fish on its belly with just a Darren Bragg solo shot and a ninth-inning Edgar Double to tie it until the Mariners’ second-year shortstop, hitting out of the nine-hole and working on an 0-for in the game, hit an RBI walkoff single.
The Mariners defeat the Angels 4-1. The Angels’ sole run comes on a Trout home run. Felix gets the win.
The Mariners edge the Athletics in an AL West showdown that would be an omen of the coming season: as good as the 102-win A’s were, the Mariners were better. Not even going Double Giambi could push Oakland past their rivals up north; after falling behind 4-0, the Mariners used their never-ending run production to nip away at the lead and eventually pull ahead. Arthur Rhodes collects the win and Sasaki the save. After starter Freddy Garcia struggles early, Brett Tomko pitches long relief in the game, with 3.2 scoreless innings. 17 years later, the winner of the 2014 Brett Tomko Award for Best DII Pitcher, Dan Altavilla, will pitch in another Mariners season opener, and will also prevent the opponent from scoring any runs.
Until last night, this was the best Opening Day in Mariners history.
After a long, turbulent off-season during which the Mariners fail to acquire a generational talent, are roundly criticized for their strategy in free agency, and whose major off-season acquisition is an infielder they’re going to ask to play the outfield, a fading star faces off against last year’s Cy Young winner and a lineup that most have already anointed as the clear victors of the AL Central—a team that won over 100 games last year. The lone bright spot of the season, the promising young catcher who has seemingly turned a corner, was a last-minute scratch with ominous-sounding side stiffness, meaning a 28-year-old rookie who has only been catching regularly for the past two years would be getting the Opening Day start, catching a heavy barrage of fireballing bullpen arms plus the curveball-changeup trickery of a King who is trying to learn some new tricks. The team’s young closer wobbled wildly in the ninth, and the other team, smelling blood, tried to wrongfoot him, attacking the young battery with everything but their bats. And somehow, somehow, the Mariners emerged victorious. Their stars were stars when they needed to be stars.
Maybe it’s recency bias; it’s hard to beat the drama of an extra-innings Opening Day game. But given the quality of the opponent they were facing, and the hurdles they overcame, it is not outlandish to call this the best Opening Day ever. Now, just do it 161 more times.