Rest easy, Mets fans. Matt Harvey is still scheduled to start Opening Day after Monday's initially unnamed health scare turned out to be blood clots in his bladder. Terry Collins didn't have an easy decision between Harvey or Jacob deGrom or even Noah Syndergaard, but with most teams the choice is obvious. It's their top starter from the prior year. If the team lost that hurler to trade, free agency or injury, then the No. 2 man will get the call, or maybe the flashy new free-agent addition. But sometimes the ball is given to someone unexpected. Here are the stories of seven such men.
Jones was a late-season addition to the 1892 Reds squad. On the final day of the regular season, only a few days after being signed off a semiprofessional sandlot team, he made the first start and appearance of his pro career and tossed a no-hitter. (He is still the only pitcher to achieve that feat in his first pitching appearance. Bobo Holloman threw a no-hitter in his first start but had made four relief appearances.) Buoyed by that performance, Jones got the call to open the 1893 season for the Reds. The distance from pitcher to batter had been increased from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches for the new season, and perhaps Jones couldn't adjust. Whatever the case might have been, he got lit up for 42 hits and 33 walks in 32.2 innings during the year and never pitched again. The resulting 7.99 ERA is the highest career mark for any pitcher with at least one Opening Day start.
Jack Nabors, 1916 Philadelphia Athletics
Nabors brought attention to himself with a 13-inning no-hitter in a 1915 Class D game (equivalent to today's minor league rookie level). Many major league clubs bid for the services of the very raw hurler, with the A's supposedly paying the most money ever for a Class D player ($500). To say Nabors was green would be doing a disservice to the color. Connie Mack, the A's owner/manager, said, "All he could do was throw the ball. He did not even know how to wind up, much less have a delivery which was permitting him to get the maximum amount of speed out of his pitches." Even though he was 27 years old, Nabors didn't even know how to properly field his position. In his big-league debut on Aug. 9, six of the first seven hits he allowed came on bunts.
Mack happened to be in deep financial trouble over escalating salaries and lower revenue due to the war, and he spent much of 1915 dismantling a team that had won four of the past five American League pennants. Star players weren't traded, but rather sold. The 1915 squad finished 43-109. Nabors ended the year with 10 appearances (seven starts), an 0-5 record, a 5.50 ERA and nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts.
Nabors showed some improvement during spring training in 1916. With fortunes bleak for the coming year, and the remainder of the staff nondescript, Mack chose Nabors to start the opener. Nabors impressed Mack by allowing no runs and two hits in his four innings of work against the defending World Series champion Red Sox.
Nabors didn't get tagged with the loss in that game, but his lack of experience showed as the season wore on. He started 30 games and relieved in 10 others, and managed to go an amazing 1-20. His record was a microcosm of the team's abilities, as the 1916 A’s have been recognized as probably the worst team in pro baseball history, compiling a 36-117 record (.235).
Nabors lasted two appearances in 1917 before getting traded to an American Association team. He never saw the majors again, and his resulting 1-25 big-league record gives him the all-time lowest winning percentage (.038) of all pitchers to make an Opening Day start. He joined the Army in 1918 and died in 1923 at age 35 from tuberculosis.
Eddie Eayrs, 1920 Boston Braves
His Baseball-Reference page lists his positions as "Outfielder, Pinch Hitter and Pitcher," and Eayrs was indeed a two-way threat. According to The Sporting News, the 5-foot-7 lefty came out of Brown University better known as a pitcher and was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June of 1913. He appeared in four games (two as a pitcher) that year, pitching a total of eight innings while going 1-for-6 at the plate. Perhaps underwhelmed by his physique, the Pirates didn't invite him back for 1914 and Eayrs ending up toiling the next six seasons in the minors.
Finally in 1920, the Braves gave him another shot and he so impressed during spring training that he was handed the ball for Opening Day. He pitched 8.1 innings and got the win against the New York Giants. However, he spent most of his 1920 season as an outfielder, compiling a .328 average in 87 games. He only made seven other pitching appearances (two more starts) that season, and was finished as a player after 1921.
Not only did these three gentlemen get the ball to start the season for their respective clubs, but in each case, the player was making his major league debut (the only times in history that has happened).
Grove certainly had nothing left to prove in the minors, going 111-39 in five seasons there through his age-24 season. Mack paid just over $100,000 to purchase Grove from Baltimore for his A's squad prior to the 1925 season, and with a mediocre staff lined up he had no hesitation in naming Grove the Opening Day starter. It didn't go well, and Grove eventually ended the season with a 10-12 record and a majors-leading 131 walks in 197 innings. But as we all know, Grove quickly put that first game and season behind him and become perhaps the greatest left-hander of all time.
Bagby, the son of a former big-league pitcher, was only 20 during a dominant 1937 season in Class A ball (akin to Double-A today). He went 21-8 in 37 games with his 21 victories leading the league. That, along with a stellar ERA of 2.71 earned him league MVP honors and a promotion to the majors for 1938.
When he arrived at Fenway Park that Opening Day, he had no idea he would be on the mound to kick off the season against the powerhouse New York Yankees. Manager Joe Cronin happened to have a now 38-year-old Grove at his disposal, but Cronin went with the kid. He decided not to tell Bagby sooner because he did not want the 21-year-old to mentally "pitch himself out" with distraction. Bagby pitched six innings and earned the win, one of 97 he attained against 96 losses in a 10-year career while compiling a roughly league-average ERA. His greatest fame, however, came in 1941 when he ended Joe DiMaggio's consecutive game hitting streak at 56.
Gerheauser was a talented prospect who was climbing the Yankees' minor-league ladder during the early 1940s. A trade to the Phillies prior to 1943 and Philadelphia's lack of rotation depth gave Gerheauser the chance to start the season with the big club. Coming off a 42-109 season and with some guys off to war, just about anyone had a shot to start Opening Day. New manager Bucky Harris bypassed veteran "Schoolboy" Rowe in favor of "old rookie" (at 25) Gerheauser. Facing a talented Brooklyn Dodgers team, Gerheauser was out after only four innings, taking the loss in an 11-4 thumping. He ended up 10-19 for the year, bounced to the Pirates and Browns the next few years, and was done at 31.
Niekro is a Hall of Famer and 300-game winner, so why would we classify him as an unlikely Opening Day hurler? His track record certainly pointed to him getting the ball to start most seasons. From his debut in 1964 through his 23-win season in 1969 (prior to his first Opening Day start), he tallied a 54-40 record with an ERA+ of 132. There was no reason NOT to start him in Game 1 in 1970, and given the Braves teams of the 1970s, he was going to be their No. 1 guy most years.
But while he compiled a record of 318-267 with an ERA of 3.32 in non-Opening Day starts, his stats on Opening Day were inexplicably poor:
That’s a 7.31 ERA in those nine games, with two no-decisions and seven losses. The seven Opening Day losses without a win is the most for any pitcher. Strange but true. Some aces have trouble in the playoffs. Others have problems with particular teams or stadiums. Niekro had issues with Opening Day. But they kept giving him the ball.
Whoever is given the honor on your favorite team this season (and last year's Opening Day starters included Drew Hutchison, Josh Collmenter, Kyle Kendrick and Henderson Alvarez), his story will most likely pale in comparison to the gentlemen described above. Opening Day gives everyone hope, and some unlikely souls a chance of a lifetime.