Opening Day and Memories

Opening Day and Memories

I was a nine year old kid living in Atlanta in the spring of 1965 when the Milwaukee franchise announced they were moving to Atlanta. For better and for worse, I’ve been a Braves fan ever since.

This will be the 53rd Atlanta Braves Opening Day; I’ve seen just about all of them and I remember most of them. Still, the most memorable was the first in 1966. You’ve probably heard about that one, even if you weren’t yet born. The Braves’ Opening Day starter was Tony Cloninger. I listened to the game on my transistor radio, mostly after I’d gone to bed. Cloninger went thirteen innings in a losing cause for the Braves. That’s not a typo—he really did pitch 13 innings. Cloninger took a 1-1 game into the thirteenth, but gave up a game winning two run home run to Willie Stargell. (The Braves scored their only runs via two solo homers by Joe Torre, including one in the bottom of the 13th to make the final score 3-2.)

The 10 year old version of me was a huge fan of Cloninger’s. He had won 24 games in 1965. He may not have had the acclaim of Koufax, Marichal, or Gibson, but as a fan I thought he was just about their equal. After all, he won more games than anyone but Koufax the year before. (We all knew in 1966 that Wins were the ultimate measure of a pitcher’s worth.) Just as importantly, in the spring of 1966 he came to my little league’s opening ceremony and signed my glove. No one could tell me he wasn’t as good as any other pitcher.

Well, it turns out Cloninger wasn’t as good as Koufax, Gibson, or Marichal. The 25 year old Cloninger won 14 games in 1966, but never had an ERA under 4 or won more than 11 games the rest of his career. We’ll never know if the 13 innings he pitched that April night in 1966 ruined his arm. Even before the days of pitch counts, most folks raised an eyebrow at pitching so many innings, especially that early in the season.

But I also realized years later that Cloninger wasn’t a great pitcher to begin with. All serious fans, including Braves Journal readers, are well aware that “Wins” are not much of a measure of pitcher value. But back then, even adults—including management and sportswriters—acted as if wins were what really mattered. Truth is, Cloninger had an ERA+ of 107 in 1965 when he won 24 games. He had great run support that year and was durable, but he was anything but a great pitcher.

That Cloninger wasn’t a great pitcher doesn’t mean I’m not a huge fan even today. Cloninger was awfully generous the one time I met him in person. And although he wasn’t a great pitcher, he had the single greatest offensive day by a pitcher ever later in 1966. In a game at Candlestick Park, he hit two grand slams and drove in 9 runs. And that was the second time that season he hit two homers in a game. My ten year old self was convinced that he ought to play the outfield on days he didn’t pitch. He could have been the next Babe Ruth!

Well, it’s Opening Day again. Rick Mahler, I mean Julio Teheran, takes the mound for the Braves. You can see why I’m confused. You did hear, didn’t you, that Julio will break Mahler’s Atlanta record by starting in his fifth straight Opening Day. The two have a lot in common: not very good starters for several years on losing teams with really bad rotations. Teheran is actually a much better pitcher than Mahler (I really do believe this, but the evidence is not conclusive), but he is not nearly the Opening Day pitcher Mahler was. R. Mahler pitched shutouts in 4 of the 5 Opening Day starts he made in the 1980’s.

That’s another way of saying that Opening Day stats don’t mean much. But Opening Day memories last a lifetime.

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