It’s all happening: Opening Day is April 7.
I could go into all the details of how things finally settled, how the players’ executive committee voted unanimously against the deal (??), how four high-profile teams (the Mets, Yankees, Cardinals and Astros) voted against the deal (??), how the two sides essentially met in the middle on everything, which is both predictable and infuriating since the owners could have saved all this angst and damage to the game by just meeting in the middle two months ago.
But you know what? I don’t want to go into any of that.
I don’t want to talk about the luxury tax or the pre-arbitration pool or the qualifying offer or any of that stuff for a good long while.
Baseball is back.
April 7 is late for an Opening Day these days because of all the extra playoff rounds that push the season into November … but it used to be just about the perfect day to get things started. Here are the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day dates going back 100 years:
1922: April 12
1932: April 12
1942: April 14
1952: April 15
1962: April 9
1972: April 15
1982: April 5
1992: April 6
2002: April 1
2012: April 5
Since 2018 (not counting the COVID year, obviously), Opening Day has been in March. And I have to say that while it’s certainly not a big deal — we’re just talking about a few days here — I’ve never really liked that much. March feels just a touch too early to me for real baseball.
I’ve always thought that part of the wonder of becoming a sports fan is how attuned your body and mind become to the season. August comes, and I start feeling ready for football. February turns to March, and I get excited for the college basketball tournament. Easter means the Masters and June means the NBA Finals.
My sports clock is powerfully attuned to the June NBA Finals. Margo and I were married on June 5, 1998 — next year will be our 25th! — and we honeymooned in Banff, which was just delightful in so many ways. And one of my most powerful memories of that honeymoon, aside from the obvious, was that it was Michael Jordan’s last NBA Finals. I so vividly remember us being in our hotel room, feeling all those things that newly married couples feel about the future and a life together, and watching Jordan hit that last shot against the Jazz, the most perfect ending to the most perfect player anyone had ever seen.*
*The Jordan Washington years, like Matrix II and III, John Elway’s so-called Super Bowl victories and all non-Ray Charles versions of “Georgia on Your Mind,” do not exist in my particular reality. I hear conspiracy theories, but I do not believe them.
And, for me, Opening Day feels right just around April 7.
So, as rotten as this baseball thing has been for months — and, of course, Opening Day won’t FEEL like Opening Day for various reasons — at least the date is good.
It is the 53rd anniversary, by the way, of the very first save in baseball history. The save absolutely fascinates me because I’ve long been fascinated by statistics that do not only quantify the game but ones that fundamentally CHANGE the game. And to me, the save is probably the best example of this phenomenon.
In many ways, I suppose, all popular stats change the game to one degree or another. Take steals and blocked shots and turnovers in basketball. I suppose everybody always knew these things mattered. But the NBA, for whatever reason, did not start officially counting any of them until the 1973-74 season, rendering all those Bill Russell blocks and Oscar Robertson steals invisible in the record books. Once they started counting, of course, people became ultra-aware of the game in a new way. Football sacks and the passer rating might be other examples.
But the save is something different, I think, because the save isn’t really COUNTING something new. It is an invention, the way that the catcher’s mask or the helmet with communications in it or the larger goalie pads are something invented.
You probably know that it was legendary baseball writer Jerome Holtzman who invented the save. He undoubtedly thought he was chronicling the game, not altering it. He thought wrong.
So the first save, as mentioned, was on Opening Day, April 7, 1969. You trivia buffs will know that it was achieved in Cincinnati by the Dodgers’ Bill Singer, who had the absolutely wonderful nickname of “The Singer Throwing Machine.”*
*I don’t blame you if you don’t get it — the Singer Sewing Machine is probably not as big a deal now as it was then. But it was a big deal then.
Singer was not a relief pitcher; he was exclusively a starter, and this would be the only relief appearance he would make all season. He was scheduled to start the next Dodgers game, two days later. But with the Dodgers leading 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Los Angeles manager Walter Alston brought in Singer to replace starter Don Drysdale.
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Actually, before we get to Singer, let’s go down the rabbit hole of that game, because it was really something. The baseball nuts among you might have noticed that the year was 1969, which means this was the first official game played after the Year of the Pitcher, 1968. This means that it was the first official game played after the mounds had been lowered.
In that way, Don Drysdale was pretty much the perfect guy to be on the newly lowered mound. He utterly loved the high mound, felt like a king on top of it. Drysdale’s game was intimidation, fastballs and maybe a few wet ones now and again. So much of that was diminished on a lower mound.
“I felt like a stranger out there at the beginning today,” he would say, and he wasn’t joking. His first four pitches were all high fastballs … but not high enough. Pete Rose hit the third of those pitches for an opposite-field home run. Bobby Tolan pulled the fourth for a home run as well.
“I was concerned,” Drysdale said. “But I wasn’t worried.”
I love quotes like that, quotes that sound pretty good but actually make no sense. Anyway, Drysdale settled in, retired the next seven batters, and so on. And then something else pretty interesting happened. There was, in 1969, a Major League Baseball initiative to speed up the games. The average time of game had rambled to a touch more than 2:30 — roughly 20 minutes longer than games had been in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
So in the second inning, a rookie umpire named Dick Stello stopped the at-bat between Drysdale and Johnny Bench to call a ball because Drysdale took more than 20 seconds between pitches.
“He had a stopwatch on me,” Drysdale said in a befuddled way. It was the first time in major league history that a ball was called because a pitcher took too long between pitches. It obviously was not and will not be the last, with a new pitcher’s clock coming.
And now for the first save: Seventh inning, Alston pulled Drysdale. It’s still not 100 percent clear why. In the press box, it was announced that Drysdale was feeling a little tightness in his shoulder and was removed for precautionary reasons. This seems perfectly logical; Drysdale, 32, was at the end of his great career, and by the end of April, arm problems would more or less end that great career.
But there was suspicion among reporters that Alston was being crafty here. The game was a 2:30 start, and by the time Singer entered the game at 4:24, the shadows had taken over Crosley Field Dementor-style. Singer threw about as hard as anybody in those days, so the feeling was that Alston wanted to take advantage of the situation. It worked, too: Singer threw three hitless and scoreless innings to notch Major League Baseball’s first official save.
It was not big news, to say the least. The Los Angeles Times barely mentioned it in the notes section after the game story. The bigger story was that Singer was scratched from his Wednesday start, to be replaced by Don Sutton.
But the save had only just begun to change the game. The qualifications for getting a save would change a couple of times over the next few years. But once the rule became settled in 1975, things began happening. In 1977, Sparky Lyle would save 26 games for the Yankees, and he won the Cy Young for it (beating out 20-game winner Jim Palmer along with Nolan Ryan, who struck out 341 batters in 299 innings).
In 1979, Bruce Sutter saved 37, and he won the Cy Young over the Niekro brothers, each 21-game winners.
The more people cared about saves, the more sportswriters rewarded them, and the more managers looked to incorporate them into their overall baseball strategies. Everybody now knows that the most basic save of all is the ninth-inning save — the rule specifies that if a reliever starts the ninth inning with a three-run lead or less, he is eligible for a save. That rule could have said that you need to get at least four outs to earn a save or it could have said that it had to be a one-run lead or it could have said that there had to be runners on base for a pitcher to get a save, and the game would be drastically different.
But because that’s the rule, managers — perhaps starting with Tony La Russa —created the modern closer, who comes into the game with a lead in the ninth, and who pitch 60 or 70 innings a year, and who have fundamentally changed the very shape of baseball.
All because of Jerome Holtzman and the save.
It’s fun talking about baseball again, isn’t it?