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For Openers...

If I had to guess which Mets newcomer was going to make the biggest Opening Day impact in 2006, I think I'd pick Paul Lo Duca. We've written about why we like Lo Duca and think he'll be quite useful for this particular team. Today we write about the precedent for why we think he'll make a difference in Game No. 1.

The Mets have had three Opening Day walk-off wins. In two of the games, the winning blow was struck by someone who regularly played catcher and the third was by someone who was a former catcher. You can read about our perspective on the game-deciding hits from Gary Carter and Alberto Castillo elsewhere on this blog, and we like the Carter karma, especially considering that he's in the house on Monday to catch Jesse Orosco's ceremonial first pitch.

The other game took place on Opening Day, 1975. I was a wee tyke of three months and a week then and have no recollection of the game that took place that April 8th between the Mets and Phillies, but discovered a neat connection between the one from that year and the one from this.
In both instances the Mets had done a significant amount of retooling to their squad. The 1975 group had to, to rid itself of the memories that came from a disastrous 1974 season, one that started with a walk-off loss against their opener opponent, the Phillies, on a home run by second-year man Mike Schmidt. The cover of the media guide shows general manager Joe McDonald on the telephone, working to bring in 13 new players who would dot the Opening Day roster. One of the veterans, like Lo Duca, was a Brooklyn native, perhaps a tad past his prime, eager to re-embrace New York City. I have a hard time saying his name now, so I'll only use it once, and at the conclusion of this piece.

The newspapers of the time tell us that the Mets had been in pursuit of this player for quite some time, but the Cardinals were reluctant to move the 1971 NL MVP until he had aged a bit to 34 years and they felt a worthy successor was capable. On October 13 1974, the Mets dangled Ray Sadecki and Tommy Moore and the two squads struck a deal.

"We just had to find an open spot for a kid we want to play at first base," Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst told the newspaper men, including those at our source, the New York Times. "He's Keith Hernandez, he's 21 years old, and he led the American Association in hitting."

The man who played 14 years in the bigs before coming home, arrived at Shea Stadium to find a ballpark preparing to host two inhabitants as the Yankees had struck an agreement to use the Mets home as theirs while Yankee Stadium was being redecorated. The lackluster Yankees had stolen some of the headlines from the gracious Mets during the offseason as well, making a couple of key offseason maneuvers for Bobby Bonds and Catfish Hunter in an effort to make the city a two-team town again.

Opening Day, 1975, was a chilly, ugly afternoon, though that bothered the hitters more than the pitchers. It also probably bothered them that the pitchers were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, who were making first date duels a tradition, having gone head-to-head three straight seasons.

The new guy had a chance to make an immediate dent on the scoreboard with a runner on third and two out in the home first, but like most others that day, he failed, grounding to first to end the frame. The Phillies took a 1-0 lead on Dave Cash's third-inning double, but the Mets matched that on a fourth inning swat over the fence by Dave Kingman, which came one batter after this new acquisition struck out.

By the ninth inning, the game wasn't even two hours old, the score remained at 1-1, and the Mets cleanup hitter was 0-for-3. So when Felix Millan led off with a single and John Milner followed by taking four balls from Carlton, some in the ballpark thought that the man batting in the cleanup slot, might pull a Carlos Beltran and bunt the runners over.

Perhaps putting the managerial instincts to work that would best serve him more than two decades later, the hitter approached the at-bat wisely. He took two balls from Carlton, than lined a pitch to left field for a hit. Phillies outfielder Greg Luzinski charged the ball and fired it home.

Thanks to a terrific photograph on the sports pages that day, we can tell that the play at home was quite close. In coming to the plate, Millan bowled over Phillies catcher Larry Cox, wrapping his body around Cox's neck, making a clean catch of the baseball impossible. His run gave the Mets a 2-1 triumph and made Joe Torre a hometown walk-off hero in his Mets debut.

True Metlyns know...Only one other Brooklyn native has gotten a walk-off hit for the Mets. That was Bob Aspromonte, who did so on May 25, 1971, also against the Phillies.

Oh, and just to have it on record somewhere, I'll pick a regular-season win total for this team, and I'll take a number that has good karma. I don't know that 86 wins will be enough to get this team into the playoffs (my predictions tend to be pessimistic) but that's the number I'm choosing.


Anonymous said…
I cut Hebrew School to watch that one. Can't speak three words of Hebrew but I'm fluent in Mets. I think I made the right choice.

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