The gold standard is Tuffy Rhodes.
Your age may spark different memories, but speaking as a baseball fan going on 41, it’s impossible to think of Opening Day and not think of Karl Rhodes in Cubs pinstripes. He played 225 games in the major leagues, but he may as well have only played one — April 4, 1994, when he led off for Chicago at Wrigley Field and cracked three home runs in his first three at-bats of the season. The first three-homer opener in National League history, the first three-homer-in-first-three-ups opener in all of baseball history, and off Dwight Gooden no less.
On pace for 486 homers, the jokes rang. Incomprehensible stuff, even still three decades later. At a time when SportsCenter was appointment viewing all morning before school, it’s a seared memory. (Fun fact: The Cubs lost the game with authority, to the point Rhodes’s third homer meant they were only down, 9-6.)
Opening Day is, of course, just the first step of a six-month marathon. Even last year, it was still 1/60th of a season, the 13-2 pounding Nate Eovaldi and the Red Sox put on Baltimore in no way indicative of what we were in store for. (Jose Peraza had four hits, for goodness sakes.)
We’ve parsed and reparsed today’s kickoff with the Orioles, the start of hopefully something big. Let’s instead take a moment to remember some kickoffs gone by, specifically some of the players whose Opening Days gave us hope, be it reasonable or laughable in hindsight.
If there’s a Tuffy Rhodes in Red Sox history, it’s, well, Tuffy Rhodes. Those 225 MLB games he played ended with 10 on the 1995 Red Sox, who we’ll get to again in a moment. (If I may complete by Tuffy Rhodes Wikipedia submission: Out of the majors 14 months after his moment in the Sun, Rhodes played the next 14 years in Japan, hitting more home runs there by a foreign-born player than anyone, ever.) If there’s a guy who had a Tuffy Rhodes moment, however, it’s Lepcio, who spent seven years and change of a decade in the majors with Boston from 1952-59.
Contemporary reports credited his defense akin to the just-departed Bobby Doerr in the 1952 opener, a 3-0 win at Washington, but he truly sparked wonder three years later, when as the third baseman he cracked the first two-homer game in the history of Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium. Highlighting a 7-1 victory, Lepcio’s two homers were as many as Boston hit as a team in 11 games in Baltimore during the 1954 season.
“I never felt so strong,” Lepcio said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t kidding you about Lepcio this spring,” general manager Joe Cronin told the Globe for the following day’s paper.
What did it lead to? Not much. Lepcio was out of the starting lineup a month later, played in only 50 more games that year (with four more homers), and played for five different teams his remaining six years in the majors.
Not long ago, colleague Chris Price stumbled across his copy of the 1995 Red Sox yearbook, which is worth sharing because it’s as close to peak 1990s as any of us need get in 2021.
@GlobeChadFinn Doing some spring cleaning. Based on their yearbook alone, ready to say the ’95 Red Sox were maybe one of the most unintentionally hilarious teams in recent local memory. pic.twitter.com/cWjkqxuQjG
— Christopher Price (@cpriceglobe) March 13, 2021
If you asked me how to describe the decade, distressed typewriter font, all in lowercase, feels like a decent encapsulation, but I digress.
Canseco’s prominence in that book is no accident … it was a happening that the one-time Bash Brother was on the Red Sox, and the 1995 opener certainly reflected that. Boston shut out the Twins, 9-0, on April 26, the first game at Fenway in 259 days thanks to the labor war that obliterated a World Series and nearly destroyed the sport. Canseco, acquired from Texas in a trade for Otis Nixon the prior December, knocked in two runs with a pair of singles batting ahead of Mo Vaughn.
More than that, however, he helped win back a crowd that seemed sore about that whole “almost destroyed baseball” thing. Canseco met with fans on Yawkey Way in the morning. He put on a batting practice show that drew applause. And his solid performance in a runaway win stole the headlines. From Dan Shaughnessy’s piece the following day: