Apr 09

Welcome Back to Dodger Stadium!

One thing you should know about me as a sports fan: the Los Angeles Dodgers are a veryclose second to USC football. And, to be honest, without the fact that I eventually attended USC after growing up a Trojan football fan, the Dodgers would likely be far and away No. 1. The first Dodger game I remember attending was in 1976 (vs. the then-brown-and-gold clad San Diego Padres), and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of my annual birthday presents was tickets to a game, usually on the next homestand (in mid-late May). Those tickets included two of the more memorable moments I enjoyed as a child with my dad at Dodger Stadium: a Dusty Baker 3-run HR to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and seeing Pete Rose and Larry Bowa of the Philadelphia Phillies both get thrown out of the game arguing the same call at third base in an eventual Dodger victory.

2009 Opener

The colors ... the packed house ... it's Dodger Stadium on Opening Day (here, 2009).

However, those memories – and many, many more – often take a back seat to one of the greatest traditions in this city: the Dodgers’ home opener. It’s an event that is always sold out, and for generations of Southern Californians, tomorrow’s 50th anniversary opener against Pittsburgh (intriguingly, it’s the Dodgers first home opener against the Pirates since 1957, the club’s final year in Brooklyn) carries an awful lot of emotional attachments. With the recent announcement of the sale of the team to a big-bucks investor group fronted by Laker legend Magic Johnson, hopes are high that a turnaround from the embarrassment of the past two seasons is not too far off, and that the 24-year drought without a National League pennant or world championship may be closer to an end. At the same time, the fact that the opener is 50 years to the day from the first Opening Day at Dodger Stadium once again will allow long-time fans to revel in the decades of great memories that have occurred in Chavez Ravine.

Tomorrow will be my 27th Opening Day in the past 31 seasons, and the night before has always been a Christmas Eve of sorts for me. To celebrate, here are my personal top 10 Dodger Stadium Opening Day memories.

Familiar pose.

Armando Benitez likely looked rather similar after the 2005 Dodgers' home opener.

10. April 12, 2005: Dodgers 9, Giants 8. In a very sloppily played opener between two teams that would go on to underwhelm for the next six months, Jeff Weaver allowed eight runs in 3+ innings and the Dodgers trailed 8-3 after four. It was still 8-5 Giants heading to the bottom of the ninth, when the Dodgers staged a two-out rally against San Francisco’s wildly unreliable closer, Armando Benitez. With the bases loaded and still trailing 8-6, Milton Bradley lined a single to left field that went between defensive replacement Jason Ellison’s legs, allowing all three runners to score for what, looking back, was probably the most enjoyable win of a horrible Dodger season.

9. April 1, 1997: Phillies 3, Dodgers 0. In the second-most masterful Opening Day pitching performance I’ve seen at Dodger Stadium, Curt Schilling strikes out 11 L.A. batters and allows just two hits over eight innings to outduel Ramon Martinez and silence the big Dodger Stadium crowd.

Top Opening Day pitching performance.

Hideo Nomo outdueled the Braves' Tom Glavine on Opening Day 1996.

8. April 8, 1996: Dodgers 1, Braves 0. Schilling’s performance, though, paled to Hideo Nomo’s complete game shutout one year before. While Nomo was (predictably) wild, walking five while striking out six, he made his best pitches at the biggest moments. Atlanta’s Tom Glavine made just one mistake, allowing a two-out run scoring single to Raul Mondesi in the third inning, during his 7-inning performance. But Nomo had an answer for every Brave rally, holding Atlanta to just three hits.

7. April 14, 2000: Dodgers 8, Reds 1. In what was to be Orel Hershiser’s final major league victory (he had rejoined the Dodgers in the offseason and would retire in late June after struggling for most of the season), the Bulldog pulled out one more bit of Dodger Stadium magic, holding the Reds to one run over 6 tough innings. The Dodgers then broke open a tight game with a 6-run seventh inning, including back-to-back 2-run doubles by Shawn Green and Eric Karros.


1990 HR

Hubie Brooks' game-winning HR in 1990 was just part of a packed day.

6. April 9, 1990: Dodgers 4, Padres 2. In a season opener delayed one week by a pre-season players’ strike, new Dodger Hubie Brooks clubbed a 3-run home run in the bottom of the eighth innning to give Dodgers’ fans a memorable Opening Day victory. This day was also the only time where I attended both the Dodgers and Angels home openers on the same day. My friends Lee and Jeff rolled with me to Dodger Stadium for the afternoon game and then headed south down the 5 for the Angels evening opener, where Ken Griffey Jr.’s booming 3-run HR off Bert Blyleven provided the difference in a 7-4 Mariners win. Amazingly, our seats for each game were within about 2o feet of the landing spots of both Brooks’ and Griffey’s home runs. A truly memorable day.

5. April 13, 2009: Dodgers 11, Giants 1. The Dodgers walking through the stands and among the 56,000 fans down to the third-base line during pre-game introductions. Vin Scully, perhaps the most important Dodger of them all, throwing out the first ball to celebrate his 60th season broadcasting for the team. And a 10-run victory over the rival Giants? That’s gotta be a top-fiver, right?

2-HR game

Raul Mondesi celebrates his game-winning HR on Opening Day 1999.

4. April 5, 1999: Dodgers 8, Diamondbacks 6 (11). Raul! Raul! Mondesi’s 3-run homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth spoiled Randy Johnson’s strong 7-inning start by tying the game at six. And his two-run blast deep into the Dodger bullpen in the bottom of the 11th won it. A great memory provided by a player whose flashes of brilliance were too far and few between for a man of his prodigious physical tools.

3. April 13, 1989: Astros 4, Dodgers 2 (15). The game itself was a 4 1/2 hour exercise in pulling teeth, basically previewing the Dodgers’ season that year. But, oh, the pregame ceremony celebrating the 1988 World Champions! Watching the entire roster carry the World Championship banner from home plate out to the centerfield flagpoles and hoist it up – unforgettable. It was the perfect way to celebrate a team that truly was more than the sum of its parts.

2. March 31, 2008: Dodgers 5, Giants 0. Speaking of unforgettable, the Opening Day celebration of the Dodgers’ 50th season in Los Angeles featured a who’s who – in uniform – of past players, all gathered in their positions on the field. With the final trio of Tom Lasorda, Fernando Valenzuela and Sandy Koufax literally bringing thousands of Dodger fans to tears, it was the perfect encapsulation of Los Angeles Dodgers history. The poetic justice of the final score – 5-0 (fifty years); 5-0 (then the total of World Series titles won by the rival Dodgers and Giants in the 50 years since their tandem move west) – was just icing on the cake.

Game-winning single

Dusty Baker's walk-off single is still the highlight of my ultimate Opening Day.

1. April 6, 1982: Dodgers 4, Giants 3. Amazingly, after all these years, the first is still the best. And, that’s the glory of Dodger history (as well as representative of the struggles of most of the past two decades). My favorite childhood player, Dusty Baker, singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Giants about three hours after the Dodgers raised the 1981 World Champions banner in centerfield. I remember our family and friends lingering after the final out for souvenirs, the awe of the fact that we’d gotten to see the opening game, the banner raising and the Dodgers beat the Giants – all in one day – kind of coursing through me. And then my sister and I spotted Dodger pitcher Bob Welch jogging through the field level concourse to his car, and chasing after him for his autograph. Unfortunately, he was a lot faster than a 10-year old and an 8-year old.

Will April 10, 2012 crack the list? Isn’t that always the hope that is part of Opening Day?

Go Dodgers!