The Braves were supposed to celebrate opening day, typically one of baseball’s most joyous occasions, Thursday. They were to have been in Phoenix to play the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of 162 games.
Mike Soroka would have been the starting pitcher. Marcell Ozuna would have made his Braves regular-season debut in left field. Austin Riley or Johan Camargo would have started at third base. Maybe Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuna or Ozzie Albies would have had a big game.
None of that will happen, of course, with the baseball season postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
So, from the archives of the Braves’ previous 54 seasons in Atlanta, we offer this chronological compilation of 10 particularly memorable — and in a few cases momentous — opening days:
APRIL 12, 1966
This was more than the opener of the 1966 season. This was the opener of major-league sports in Atlanta.
A crowd of 50,671 filled Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) for the Braves’ first regular-season game after moving here from Milwaukee. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Mayor Ivan Allen, who famously described the stadium as having been built “on ground we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, for a team we hadn’t signed.”
The game went 13 innings, and Tony Cloninger pitched all of them for the Braves. By many accounts, his arm was never quite the same again. Joe Torre, the Braves’ catcher, hit two home runs, making him the only player in MLB history with two homers on opening day in back-to-back seasons. But despite the efforts of Cloninger and Torre, the Braves’ Atlanta era began with a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
APRIL 4, 1974
On his first swing of the 1974 season, Hank Aaron caught Babe Ruth.
Aaron’s 714th career home run tied Ruth’s legendary record, long believed to be unbreakable. The three-run homer to left-center field came on a 3-1 pitch from Reds starter Jack Billingham in the first inning of baseball’s then-traditional opener in Cincinnati.
The game, eventually won by the Reds 7-6 in 11 innings, was stopped for an on-field ceremony in which Vice President Gerald Ford, MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Braves owner Bill Bartholomay congratulated Aaron. After thanking them, Aaron said of the home-run chase: “I’m just glad it’s almost over with.”
The Braves had considered holding Aaron out of the season-opening series so he could seek to tie — and break — Ruth’s record at home, but Kuhn ordered the team to start him for at least two of the season’s first three games in Cincinnati. (Aaron sat out the second game, went 0-for-3 in the third and hit record-breaking No. 715 in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, the Braves’ fourth game and first at home that year.)
APRIL 6, 1982
What turned out to be a special 1982 season for the Braves began with a 1-0 win over the Padres in San Diego.
With future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro beginning the season on the disabled list, Rich Mahler got the opening-day start and pitched nine shutout innings, allowing just two hits. It was the first of Mahler’s five season-opening starts for the Braves – and the first of his three opening-day shutouts.
Opening day in 1982 ignited an amazing start for the Braves, who won their first 13 games that season under newly hired manager Joe Torre. The Braves went on to win the NL West that season, their only division title between 1969 and 1991.
APRIL 7, 1992
This is what Tom Glavine did on opening day in 1992 in Houston’s Astrodome: He pitched a complete-game shutout, had two of the Braves’ four hits and scored the season’s first run.
Picking up where he left off in his Cy Young Award-winning season of 1991, Glavine allowed just two hits (none after the second inning) and struck out nine (including four of the last six batters he faced) as the Braves opened an ultimately successful defense of their National League pennant with a 2-0 win. It was Glavine’s first career win against the Astros, against whom he was previously 0-8 mainly because of a lack of offensive support. “About time!” teammate John Smoltz said to Glavine after the game.
The game was scoreless until the eighth inning, when Glavine singled and scored.
APRIL 5, 1993
This opener marked the Braves debut of Greg Maddux, and to no one’s surprise he immediately showed what a major addition he would prove to be.
Maddux, signed as a free agent four months earlier, pitched 8-1/3 scoreless innings in the first game of the 1993 season against his former team, the Chicago Cubs. He allowed five hits and no base runner past second base on a cold day at Wrigley Field as Cubs fans booed and taunted him. The Braves won 1-0 in the first of Maddux’s seven opening-day starts for them.
“You don’t see too many performances like that by a pitcher on Opening Day,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said after the game. “What a cool guy.”
APRIL 26, 1995
The 1995 season started 23 days late because of the players’ strike that wiped out the previous year’s World Series. Only 24,091 fans showed up for the Braves’ belated opener against the San Francisco Giants at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, an expression of disenchantment about the long labor dispute. But by day’s end, some cheers returned.
The Braves pounded out 17 hits, including six in a row to start the bottom of the first inning, and won the game 12-5. First baseman Fred McGriff was 4-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs. “Before the game, I was wishing I had a few more days to work on my swing,” McGriff said afterward. Rookie third baseman Chipper Jones scored three runs.
A season that would end six months later with the Braves as World Series champions was finally underway.
APRIL 1, 1996
The pregame ceremony was the highlight of opening day in 1996.
As master of ceremonies Ernie Johnson Sr., the beloved Braves broadcaster, introduced the returning players one by one, they paraded from the dugout to collect their 1995 World Series championship rings from National League President Leonard Coleman. Then, the world championship flag was raised atop Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
“To finally have it happen ... it’s hard for me to comprehend,” Ted Turner, then the Braves owner, said.
Once the pageantry was completed, the Braves slammed five home runs and beat the Giants 10-8 on a cold afternoon. The attendance was 48,961, more than double the previous year’s opening crowd.
APRIL 3, 2000
After cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — sidelined him for all of the 1999 season, Braves first baseman Andres Galarraga had a too-good-to-be-true return on opening day in 2000: He hit a game-winning home run into the left-center-field seats and made a game-saving defensive play as the Braves beat the Colorado Rockies 2-0 at Turner Field.
“I’ve had a lot of great things happen to me in my career, but today is something special,” Galarraga said afterward. “It’s like a movie.”
Galarraga, who hit .305 with 44 home runs and 121 RBIs for the Braves in 1998, was the National League Comeback Player of the Year in 2000 with a .302 average, 28 homers and 100 RBIs.
APRIL 5, 2010
Braves fans had eagerly awaited the major-league debut of much-hyped prospect Jason Heyward, and he didn’t disappoint them on opening day in 2010. On his first regular-season swing as a big leaguer, Heyward drilled a three-run, 446-foot homer off Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano in the first inning.
The reaction from the crowd of 53,081 at Turner Field was so loud, Heyward said later, that “I couldn’t hear myself think” while circling the bases. “As soon as he hit it,” said Terry Pendleton, then the Braves’ hitting coach, “we started high-fiving and saying, ‘You've got to be kidding me.’ You can't script something like that.”
The Braves went on to win the game 16-5, scoring the most runs ever by an Atlanta-era Braves team on opening day. But the day belonged to Heyward, the 20-year-old rookie out of Henry County High School, who had two hits and four RBIs.
MARCH 29, 2018
The Braves trailed the Philadelphia Phillies 5-0 in the sixth inning, and with two out in the bottom of the ninth the score was tied 5-5. Then Nick Markakis hit a three-run homer over the right-center field wall to give the Braves a stirring 8-5 victory to open the 2018 season at SunTrust Park.
It was the first walk-off homer of Markakis’ career and the Braves’ first walk-off homer on opening day since arriving in Atlanta in 1966. The rally from a five-run deficit made for the franchise’s biggest first-game comeback win since at least 1900.
The game revealed the resiliency that would come to define a turnaround season for the Braves. After losing 90-plus games each of the previous three years, they won the NL East in 2018 (and again in 2019).
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