By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Another op’nin’, another show
In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’,
A chance for stage folks to say hello,
Another op’nin’ of another show.
— “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” from the Broadway musical, “Kiss Me Kate”
Opening night. Nothing like it, be it a Broadway opening or a movie premier.
Or the first day of the rest of a baseball player’s life.
It’s an evening when glamor and nerves co-exist, when the past means nothing and the future dissipates into a meaningless mist.
Only the present exists.
And so it was for Gerrit Cole, pitching phenom of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a No. 1 choice with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball.
He had ridden the Major League Express through the minor leagues and then, somewhere around 7:10 on a humid Tuesday evening, the strains of the National Anthem having faded into another night at the ball park for the veterans on the field behind him and in the other dugout, he found himself alone on the hill in the midst of the infield in the best baseball stadium in America, ready to throw his first pitch.
This was Gerrit Cole against the world, but he was hardly alone out there. In truth, every man who had ever pitched in the major leagues had gone through the same thing, perhaps not always with the hype surrounding this debut, but everyone from Hall of Famer to total failures had made a debut.
How would his stack up to the hard-throwing Hall of Famers who had come before him, men whose fastballs were legendary and who would perform feats no one could imagine a pitcher performing.
o June 24, 1955, Brooklyn at Milwaukee, fifth inning, trailing 6-0, a 19-year-old left-handed bonus baby out of the University of Cincinnati would come on in relief.
His name was Sandy Koufax.
The first batter he faced was Johnny Logan, who singled, and now he stood there looking at a pair of Hall of Famers in Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, followed by the home run hero Bobby Thomson and Joe Adcock, a man who would hit four home runs and a double in a game and had broken up Harvey Haddix’s perfect game in the 13th inning.
But not a one of them would get a hit off Koufax, who went on to pitch two scoreless innings allowing only Logan’s hit and walk to Aaron.
o April 12, 1965, not every Hall of Famers debut was like Koufax’s.
Steve Carlton made his debut at Wrigley Field for the Cardinals, came on in a game that would end, 10-10, replacing Barney Schultz.
The score was tied, a runner was at second, power-hitting left-handed first baseman George Altman was at the plate.
The 20-year-old Carlton’s job was to get him out.
He didn’t. He walked him and was replaced, facing one batter in his debut.
o Bob Gibson was 23 when he faced his first major league batter in the Los Angeles Coliseum with its 230-foot left field fence and he must have wondered what he gotten himself into for Jim Baxes, a career minor leaguer who was playing his only major league season, said “Welcome to the big leagues” by hitting a home run.
Baxes would bat only .246 in that but did hit 17 home runs.
Gibson would play 16 years and win 251 games.
o Randy Johnson was something of a freak when he debuted, at 6-foot-10, he was the tallest pitcher ever, maybe the hardest throwing and a 25-year-old rookie, which was old for making a debut.
The opponent on Sept. 15, 1988, for him was the Pirates and while his debut was hardly spectacular, pitching five innings of a 9-4 win, allowing six hits, a couple of runs with three walks and five strikeouts.
The first batter he faced was John Cangelosi, who grounded out to second, and he also was touched for his first home run, this by Glenn Wilson.
o Times change. There was a time when everyone believed Walter Johnson and Bob Feller were the two hardest throwers the game had ever seen.
Certainly, Johnson threw hard for his time, right from the start when as a 19-year-old he pitched and won Washington’s opener, 3-2. But it was 1907 and let’s just say the players were different.
Johnson was considered a big man, but at 6-1 and 200 he wasn’t Randy Johnson. Consider this when wondering just how hard Johnson threw … there were 99 players debut in the major leagues in 2007 and only 24 of them were 6-foot or taller, none taller than 6-3 and only four listed at 200 pounds.
None were more than 200 pounds and one, an infielder named John Kane, was listed at 138 pounds.
Feller could throw hard. That was documented by rudimentary machines that measured the speed of his pitch and by the numbers he compiled in a career interrupted by World War II.
But what of is debut?
In July 19, 1936, and Feller was a fuzzy faced 17-year-old farm boy who would pitch an inning in relief, giving up nothing worse than a couple of walks.
But Feller is remembered for his first major league start, which would come a month later.
So unsure of him was his manager Steve O’Neill, that he had another pitcher, Denny Galeouse, warm up with him in case he got in early trouble.
It was the batters who were in trouble, as Feller struck out the side in the ninth and finished with 15 strikeouts, then the most by any pitcher in big league history in his first start as he won his first major league game.
o Feller’s record stood until Sept. 22, 1954, when a hard-throwing 23-year-old left-hander Dodgers’ left-hander named Karl Spooner broke in against the New York Giants with a three-hitter in which he struck out 17.
He followed that up with another shutout and 12 strikeouts in other start of the year but injured his arm in spring training the following season and never was the same, retiring after the next season.
o The greatest debut belongs to Juan Marichal, the Hall of Famer, who was a 22-year-old rookie when he took the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 19, 1960. All Marichal did was pitch a complete game, 2-0, one-hit shutout with one walk and 12 strikeouts.
o And then there was Cole’s debut, PNC Park electric. First batter, first major league strikeout.
Second batter, first major league hit allowed.
Dominate? No, not yet.
Four hits in the first two innings, a bases-loaded jam in second, but no runs allowed.
And then, in the third, with just six professional at bats behind him and no hits, he goes up and bangs out a two-run single.
Think this wasn’t his night. This first professional hit came off two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.
With the lead, Cole pounded the strike zone, throwing just 13 balls in five innings, taking a shutout into the seventh before finally being touched for a run and leaving.
A Hall of Fame debut?
Well, all we can tell you is Roger Clemens pitched 5.2 innings in his first game, gave up five runs, 11 hits, walked 3 and struck out four while pitched 6.1, gave up two runs, seven hits, no walks and two strikeouts.
We’ll let you judge.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel