When's the Last Time the Indians Led Off Their Season With A Hit, Anyway?

T.J. Zuppe

"A lotta people say you can tell how a season's gonna go by the first hitter of the year."

A lot of people are full of it.

After all, those words, spoken by Harry Doyle, Bob Uecker's character from the movie "Major League" carry as much truth as the feeling that a week-old pair of underwear somehow bring the wearer added luck (and perhaps an advantage when it comes to social distancing). Yet, undeniably, there is something to the positive vibes that accompany each team's leadoff hitter reaching base to begin a season.

But how would you rate success? What is failure? How would you rate a walk compared to a double, anyway? Would a leadoff homer signal to the rest of the league to just give up their championship hopes for that season? Would a swinging strikeout give validity to every "season's over" tweet that would soon follow?

Well, science has more pressing matters around the world at the moment, and sometimes it's better to leave certain questions of the universe to the unexplained.

Instead, let's focus on the later part of Uecker's quote from Major League.

"Hayes becomes the first Indian in 15 years to lead off the season with a hit."

Yes, the fictional Cleveland franchise had their issues providing good feelings at the start of their seasons -- that's before Willie Mays Hayes' excuse-me, swinging-bunt of an infield single snaps that club's streak. But what sort of luck have the non-fictional Indians had to begin their campaigns? Certainly, things had to be better than the way it was penned for a Hollywood script, right?

Admittedly, it was tough to recall the last time a Tribe leadoff man reached base to begin the season -- not that it's often something to really remember. But with baseball on hiatus for the time being, let's revisit the past 20 years in leading off.

2019: Leonys Martin vs. Jose Berrios

- Result: Strikeout swinging

Wait, the same Indians team that missed the playoffs for the first time since the non-division winners of 2015 started with a strikeout ... against the Twins of all clubs? Maybe there's something to Harry Doyle's proclamation, after all.

2018: Francisco Lindor vs. Felix Hernandez

- Result: Popout to shortstop

Well, at least there's some contact here. And if we're being honest, the entire 2018 season felt like a popout to shortstop. Doyle 2, Naysayers 0.

2017: Carlos Santana vs. Yu Darvish

- Result: Fly out to right field

OK, maybe you could make the case that a fly ball is exciting for a hot minute before it ultimately finds a way into the outfielder's mitt. Still, you'd think a club that was eventually destined to win 22 consecutive games might start with a triple or something, right? And, given they'd sputter in the playoffs, that runner would need to be stranded at third. Either way, the Indians' 0-for streak is now at three.

2016: Rajai Davis vs. David Price

- Result: Strikeout looking

Welp, sorry, Harry. Not only did the 2016 club *holds index finger and thumb an inch apart* come this close to winning it all, but it was Rajai Davis who would later connect on one of the biggest homers in franchise history -- and, if not for the eventual outcome, baseball history. Getting caught looking to begin the campaign doesn't really do much to prove the season leadoff batter theory.

2015: Michael Bourn vs. Dallas Keuchel

- Result: Groundout to second

So, this is probably why it's tough to recall the last time an Indians leadoff man started the season by reaching base. To quote the band "Staind," it's been a while.

2014: Nyjer Morgan vs. Sonny Gray

- Result: Walk

Aha! A base-runner! And it's Nyjer Morgan, who once made a leaping catch at the Progressive Field wall, flexed his muscles, then told reporters after the game that he was doing it "for the kids." Sure, that inning started with walks to Morgan and Nick Swisher before fizzling into a missed opportunity (much like the 2014 fizzled after the 2013 club reached the postseason), but at least for a brief moment, the Tribe was on pace to never make an out that season. But it's not a hit, so we continue.

2013: Michael Bourn vs. R.A. Dickey

- Result: Groundout to second

If Michael Bourn were to have a movie made about his Indians career, "groundout to second" would make a logical choice for the film's title.

2012: Michael Brantley vs. Rickey Romero

- Result: Strikeout swinging

Goodness, have the Indians ever started the campaign with a hit? That's now 0-for-7 over the past eight seasons, with three strikeouts. And Morgan, the only man to reach over this stretch, was stranded without scoring. When will he madness end?!

2011: Michael Brantley vs. Mark Buehrle

- Result: Single to left field

Launch the confetti cannons! Ignite the fireworks! Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he once played *checks notes* center field for the Indians. Sure, ignore the 15-10 slugfest that was the 2011 opener -- Roberto "Fausto Carmona" Hernandez, Justin Germano and Frank Herrmann combined to give up the two touchdowns, extra-point and two-point conversion -- but all that matters here is that Cleveland didn't start the season with a .000 batting average.

2010: Asdrubal Cabrera vs. Mark Buehrle

- Result: Weak groundout to short

Ah, back to the old tricks. And why does it feel like the Indians faced Mark Buehrle a lot on Opening Days of years gone by?

2009: Grady Sizemore vs. Kevin Millwood

- Result: Strikeout swinging

Well, certainly things can only go up from here from Sizemore. He entered the year as a sleeper MVP candidate, after all. [checks Baseball-Reference.com] Oh, no.

2008: Grady Sizemore vs. Mark Buehrle

- Result: Flyout to center field

Oh, it's Buehrle. Again.

2007: Grady Sizemore vs. Jose Contreras

- Result: Home run to right field

[spits out freshly-brewed coffee] Excuse me? He did what?! Didn't the Red Sox see this? How dare they come back from the brink to beat the Indians in the ALCS after Sizemore did that? Especially after Julio Lugo began the Boston season with a strikeout?! Well, if nothing else, it improves Cleveland's last 13 season-opening plate appearances to 2-for-12, which, uhhh, isn't all that great.

2006: Grady Sizemore vs. Mark Buehrle

- Result: Strikeout looking

Well, certainly, this has to the the last time they faced Buehrle on Opening D--

2005: Coco Crisp vs. Mark Buehrle

- Result: Groundout to second

You're kidding, right? Nope. The Indians faced Buehrle five times on Opening Day, the most of the nine Opening Day starts he ended up making for the White Sox over his 16 years in the Majors. Cleveland only won one of those games.

2004: Matt Lawton vs. Brad Radke

- Result: Single to right field

Orange you glad we didn't say, Buehrle? Lawton apparently was, picking up the Indians' third (!!) hit to begin the season over the past 16 Opening Days.

2003: Milton Bradley vs. Rodrigo Lopez

- Result: Groundout to shortstop

A hit from Milton Bradley to begin the 2003 season would have probably felt like a walk through Candyland. Instead, attempting to win without a season-opening knock was as difficult as a match of Jenga. And remembering each of the Tribe's leadoff hitters is like a challenging game of Guess Who? But that's Life.

2002: Matt Lawton vs. Jarrod Washburn

- Result: Walk

For all of the talk about Matt Lawton being an underwhelming return for Roberto Alomar, he reached base in both of his Opening Day leadoff at-bats. That's, uhhh, well it's something. And given the Tribe's season leadoff woes, take it.

2001: Kenny Lofton vs. David Wells

- Result: Single to left field

A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship -- and David Wells owns the Indians. But it is not this day. OK, it's highly unlikely that Lofton delivered an Aragorn-like speech before Cleveland's 2001 opener, but a single off of Wells must have felt as motivating as the words famously spoken in front of Mordor's Black Gate. I mean, it didn't work, as the White Sox topped the Tribe 7-4, but at least Lofton offers a fourth hit to improve the team's past 20 Opening Day leadoff at-bats. And that's almost as good as dropping the ring of power into Mount Doom. Almost.

2000: Kenny Lofton vs. Mike Mussina

- Result: Popout to shortstop

Fitting our trip down memory land would lead us to a weak out. Yes, even the powerful clubs of the late 90s and early 2000s were vulnerable to the dreaded season-opening out to begin the campaign.

So, that gives the Indians four hits over their past 18 season-opening at-bats, walking twice and striking out five times. That's good for a lid-lifting average of .222 and on-base percentage of .300. 

That means they'll need a hit in their next opener, whenever the might be, to avoid stretching their current leadoff hitless skid to nine openers.

What a tone-setter.

Sure, one at-bat to begin the year doesn't exactly explain why the Indians are 7-13 over their past 20 openers -- the talent on the field for some of those seasons might have had something to do with it blah, blah, blah -- but without baseball to watch, digest and analyze, you'll have to forgive some unnecessary and completely irrational dot-connection in the meantime.

All that said, whatever they've done from 1949 to the present hasn't led to a title, so perhaps it's worth examining what went right in 1948, their last championship season. It was then, after all, that Thurman Tucker began the season with ... a walk.

Ahh, well. Nyjer Morgan and Matt Lawton tried.

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