Amid a season on hiatus, Oakland A’s recall their fondest opening day memories

Oakland Athletics' Dallas Braden, Bob Melvin, Ken Korach, Vince Cotroneo recall their favorite Opening Day memories

The Los Angeles Angels take batting practice before their home opener against the Oakland Athletics at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
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Opening days haven’t been kind to the Oakland A’s.A franchise that has mastered and revolutionized the art of advanced analytics roster-building on a budget has yet to nail the craft of the first impression. The Athletics, in Oakland, hold a 23-29 all-time record on Opening Day.

But, if the A’s might teach us anything, it’s that opening days don’t matter much. The lineup that takes the field on that day will soon morph into another and then another, multiple times over. Opening Day: one game down, 161 to go.

These are all undeniable truths, at least, when the globe isn’t crippled by a viral pandemic. Opening Day, scheduled for Thursday, did not happen and there’s no telling when it will.

So, for all the opening days we might’ve taken for granted — wins and losses — a few of the A’s shared their memories of (opening) days gone by.

Dallas BradenThe 2009 opener was just the first of many losses in a season that saw the A’s spend only one day above .500 (2-1) and finish 75-87.

But that game meant everything to Braden, a kid born and raised in Stockton

“I’m the opening day starter for a team in basically my neighborhood,” Braden said in a phone conversation. “Not many people get to open up the big league season, let alone with their hometown team across their chest.”

The honor was entirely unexpected. Justin Duchscherer was the likely choice. coming off a season (10-8, 2.54) in which he represented Oakland in the All Star Game. But shoulder trouble opened the door for the 25-year-old left-hander from Stockton.

After one spring start in Arizona, Braden was eating his post-game meal when manager Bob Geren sat down next to him for a chat. Post-start chats were routine. “You’re talking about things that you’re working on, you’re getting some insight. You’re getting some feedback,” Braden said.

Then, Geren’s talk went off script. Braden would get the ball on opening day at Angel Stadium.

“You have an organization that is telling you, you’re the guy to start us on our road to the World Series,” Braden said. “You’re the guy that is steering the ship right out headed towards the World Series. When you talk about playing for October, it all starts with the first pitch of the season. And when you’re the individual who’s letting that first pitch fly, there’s no other feeling like it.”

Braden went six innings, allowing three runs — which was three more than the A’s got him,

Bob Melvin

His first Opening Day came with the 1986 Giants — yes, the day rookie Will Clark announced himself by homering on his first swing, in the spacious Astrodome against Nolan Ryan no less.

Melvin was 24 years old.

“There’s nothing like this,” Melvin recalls telling one of the coaches, Bill Fahey, during batting practice.

Fahey had a sobering response.

“Try to keep that feeling every day of your career,” he told Melvin.

Two years later, Melvin got the opening day start, catching a complete-game 5-1 victory from  Dave Dravecky at Dodger Stadium.

“I grew up in the Bay Area,” Melvin said, citing the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, “so to be able to play Dodger Stadium was a surreal moment. It was electric. Watching as many as I did growing up, to be a part of it, I don’t know if the feeling was just me or the ambiance of Dodger Stadium or a combination of both.”

As a manager, his favorite opener came in 2015, when the A’s won on Opening Day for the first time in 11 years. Melvin was responsible for only three of those losses, but still…

“I just remember how relieved I felt,” Melvin said.

Sonny Gray pitched eight shutout innings, a prelude to his an All-Star season in which he’d  finish third in Cy Young voting. Ben Zobrist homered in his first at-bat with the team and the A’s beat Texas 8-0.

Ken Korach

Coliseum crowds were sparse in the 1970s, despite the compelling cast of characters that took the field those years. Empty sections acted as a makeshift a booth for a young Ken Korach, who’d take his recorder high into the left-field stands and tape play-by-play commentary of every game he could.

Korach’s dream of calling A’s games from the Coliseum’s booth came true in 1995, but the 1999 opener against the Yankees stands out to him.

Roger Clemens made his Yankees debut that day, going six strong, before the A’s rallied for three runs against him and two relievers for a 5-3 victory. That season was a turning point for the franchise, a coming of age for young stars such as Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada.

“The three previous seasons weren’t very good,” Korach said. “But as the year went on it was clear the foundation was in place. Guys like Giambi, Chavez, Tejada, (Matt) Stairs, (Ben) Grieve in the lineup. A young team on the verge…”

Next on Korach’s list: the 2018 opener in which Korach was asked to kick-off the organization’s 50th anniversary season — and their first daytime opener in almost 25 years — with an on-field speech for the game against the Angels.

After his speech, Korach thanked Angels manager Mike Scioscia for his patience.

“No problem, this is what we do,” Scioscia said to Korach. “We embrace the game’s history.”

Down four runs late, the A’s pulled even on back-to-back homers by Khris Davis and Matt Olson, then won in the 11th inning when Marcus Semien singled home Boog Powell.

Fifty years earlier, another man named Boog Powell, playing for the Baltimore Orioles, had scored the first run in Coliseum history.

“That was a bit of the baseball gods,” Korach said.

Vince Cotroneo

Cotroneo has a laundry list of favorite opening days. There was his first, in 1991, when he was working for the Houston Astros. And there was the one in 1998, with the Texas Rangers, when a surprise visitor came into the booth.

George W. Bush, who’d just sold his stake in the Rangers, joined Cotroneo and Eric Nadel  for a few innings. There were rumblings that Bush would soon run for president. Nadel decided to nudge the former Texas governor.

“Anything you want to announce on the air?” Nadel asked. Bush deflected; he was kind and courteous, Cotroneo noted.

There was the 2001 opener, held in Puerto Rico, the one that marked Alex Rodriguez’s first game with the Rangers. Over the next three seasons, Cotroneo got to know a player he thinks was a bit misunderstood.

“While he certainly had his opportunity to be a diva, he definitely wasn’t that,” Cotroneo said. “He was 100 percent available to us every single day. He loves the game and loves talking about the game.”

During charter flights, Rodriguez would venture to the back of the plane to hang out with the broadcast crew, eager to talk ball. He was an accessible superstar.

But no opening day was more significant to Cotroneo than the one in 2006 between the A’s and the New York Yankees. It was the first A’s game in 26 years without Bill King on the air. The legendary announcer had died suddenly that fall at age 78.

King could never be replaced, but the A’s needed a partner for Korach.

Korach knew Cotroneo from their days in the Pacific Coast League games in 1989, but Cotroneo had been out of the game for two years. That was a challenge Cotroneo could meet. The bigger challenge was the shoes he’d be filling.

“Suddenly here’s a guy A’s fans don’t know from Adam,” Cotroneo said.

Cotroneo made his A’s debut behind the mic on April 3, 2006. He made sure to address A’s fans in mourning; he could never replace King, but he was there to keep the color commentary flowing.

“I said ‘He’s your guy, you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to him. I’m not Bill, I’ll never try to be Bill.’”

The rest of the broadcast was forgettable.The A’s lost 15-2.

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