Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Opening Week glittered with unlikely heroes, none more stunning than Atlanta's Kent Mercker, who tossed a no-hitter
April 17, 1994

It was a few minutes after Atlanta Brave lefthander Kent Mercker had pitched the first no-hitter of the 1994 season, a 6-0 gem last Friday night at Dodger Stadium. Joe Simpson, a telecaster for the Braves' superstation, TBS, snagged him for an interview. "So, Joe," Mercker asked, with a laugh, "who's the star of the game?"

Mercker was the Atlanta starter least likely to make history in a rotation that features the Fab Four: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. But Mercker now has one no-hitter and a share of another—three Brave pitchers combined for that one in 1991—in 12 major league starts, compared with zero in 762 starts by the Fab Four.

Never mind that Mercker, 26, had never pitched longer than six innings in a major league game before last Friday (that's how many he lasted as the starter in the '91 no-hitter) or that his next turn in the rotation will be skipped because Atlanta's schedule this week included an off-day. In a remarkable first week of the baseball season—filled daily with unlikely heroes and headlines—it was fitting that an un-imposing fifth starter was the biggest star.

Still, Mercker wasn't encouraging talk of a possible Fab Five. "Hey, they are the Fab Four," he said after finding the latest issue of Baseball America, with his four rotation mates on the cover, hanging in his locker after the no-hitter. "That's all right with me. They've got all the pressure. Tonight would have been a mediocre game for them."

Hardly. Relying on a 90-mph fastball and a much-improved changeup, Mercker dominated Dodger batters, striking out 10 (including Mike Piazza three times) and retiring the last 11 hitters in order.

Two terrific defensive plays by third baseman Terry Pendleton in the second inning and a diving catch by centerfielder Deion Sanders in the fifth preserved the no-no. Mercker also got a break in the sixth, when second baseman Mark Lemke, covering second on a steal attempt, ran right into the path of an Eric Karros line drive that otherwise would have gone into center for a single.

"See, a no-hitter is luck," Mercker said. "If it was skill, how many would Tom Glavine have?" Nevertheless Mercker became the first Brave to throw a complete game no-hitter since Phil Niekro in 1973 and the first Atlanta lefty to do it since Warren Spahn in '61. The Brave coaches toasted Mercker after the game with champagne in paper cups. "The Fab Four," said bullpen coach Ned Yost, "is in awe tonight."

After the game, said Mercker, he "watched CNN Headline Sports at 20 and 50 minutes past the hour for seven hours...same highlights." The next day he received 38 phone messages on the voice mail at his hotel. "I must be too stupid, but to me it's not a big deal," he said. "It's a privilege for me to be on this team." Indeed, the Braves were the last unbeaten club (7-0) in the majors at week's end.

But Mercker wasn't the only humble servant of the game to dominate highlight films, as evidenced by the following Monday-through-Sunday account of a wonderfully wacky first week of the season.

Monday: The Colossus of Rhodes

Chicago Cub leadoff hitter Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes, who had five home runs in 280 major league at bats entering the season, became only the second player in history to hit three homers on Opening Day. The dingers came in consecutive at bats against the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden, who had allowed three homers in a game only three times in his 10-year career.

"And all three of Tuffy's homers came on different pitches," said Houston Astro second baseman Craig Biggio, who watched his former teammate's huge day on replay. "One was on a nasty hook, another on a fastball and another on a ball that was running away from him. It was amazing."

Before Rhodes did it, Barry Bonds, Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton were the only active players who had hit three homers off Gooden in their careers. Rhodes hadn't hit more than four homers in any of his seven pro seasons until last year when he pounded a total of 30 at two Triple A stops. "I don't want to put myself in their category," said Rhodes, "but the power dimension that Lenny Dykstra and Rickey Henderson add to their ball clubs is something that I feel I can do."

Despite the efforts of their 25-year-old centerfielder, the Cubs lost 12-8.

Tuesday: In Delgado We Trust

It took only two games to come up with a nickname for Toronto Blue Jay rookie leftfielder Carlos Delgado: Hard Rock. In his first major league start, on Monday against the Chicago White Sox at the Sky-Dome, the 21-year-old Delgado, a converted catcher, hit a ball 428 feet into an open skybox in rightfield, just to the right of the Hard Rock Cafe. On Tuesday night he hit one 445 feet off the top of the glass of Windows restaurant in centerfield.

"The guy's been in the league two days, and he's hit two of the longest home runs I've ever seen," said White Sox centerfielder Lance Johnson. "We're going to have to play him in the third deck and use a bungee cord."

Even though he was considered one of Toronto's best prospects the last two years, Delgado wasn't supposed to stick with the Blue Jays until the 1995 season. But when rookies Rob Butler and Robert Perez played themselves out of the competition for the vacant leftfield spot with 10 days to go in spring training, Toronto manager Cito Gaston put Delgado out there. Considering that he was not a very good catcher defensively, Delgado probably would have moved to a new position anyway, but there has never been a question about his booming bat.

"I saw a game in San Juan this winter, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium," said Dodger scout Mel Didier. "There is a brick wall 75 feet behind the outfield fence, which is 385 in the alleys. I've seen hundreds of games there, and Delgado is the first player I've ever seen hit a ball over the brick wall. He must have hit it 475 feet. Delgado could be the next Juan Gonzalez if he develops some consistency."

Delgado did not, however, hit the majors' longest homer of the evening. That distinction belonged to (who else?) Minnesota Twin Pedro Munoz, whose 473-foot blast off the California Angels' Mark Langston was the second-longest in the history of the Metrodome.

Wednesday: Cooking with Klesko

Would you believe the best rookie hitter of the week wasn't Delgado? It was Atlanta leftfielder Ryan Klesko, a converted first baseman. Klesko also hit home runs the first two days of the season, against the San Diego Padres, and then came back Wednesday night and went 4 for 4, with a triple and three RBIs.

"Before the fourth game [of the series, on Thursday], I told our catcher, Brad Ausmus, to give Klesko the key when he came to bat in the first inning," said Padre hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "Brad said, 'Key to what, the city?' I said, 'No, to Cooperstown.' He killed the ball. If he's that good, he's going to have some huge power numbers and a huge average."

On Wednesday night a Klesko line drive off the top of the rightfield fence was hit so hard that all he got out of it was a single. "There's no way a person can hit a ball harder than that," said Pendleton. "He doesn't give a damn who's pitching, he knows he can hit him. He's got the system beat already."

Klesko, 22, has been one of the Braves' top prospects since signing with them in 1989, but Fred McGriff became Atlanta's first baseman when he was acquired last July. It took injuries to three left-fielders—Ron Gant in February, Chipper Jones and Tony Tarasco in March—before the way was cleared for Klesko to play regularly. "After we got Fred, I figured I was gone," said Klesko. "I was upset about not getting a shot. But I put my anger into work in the off-season. When my friends were fishing, I was taking fun-goes. I lost 10 pounds [down to 240]. I've played well. If you start out bad here, someone else is going to play."

Klesko was a promising lefthanded pitcher while in high school in Westminster, Calif. His mother, Lorene, not only built a pitching mound in the backyard for him, but she also used to catch him. "He was throwing in the upper 80's. People thought I was crazy," says Lorene, who was in her 40's at the time. "Then one day he threw a curve that bounced and hit me on the leg. I couldn't walk for a week. That was it for me. I guess I should have put the gear on—but I didn't have any gear."

Lorene was in San Diego for the first two games of the season, though she didn't see her son's 4-for-4 performance because an asthmatic condition forced her to return home. But she was happy to have seen her son's two homers. "After both, he pointed up to the stands where mama was sitting—that got to me," she said. "Tears were running down my face."

Thursday: A Bombing in the Bronx

For a makeup game of Wednesday's rain-out, only 5,851 fans went to Yankee Stadium—the smallest crowd there in almost 22 years—to watch the New York Yankees beat the Texas Rangers 18-6. The Bombers nearly became the first American League team since 1949 to score in every inning, tallying in each of the first seven before Texas's Tom Henke pitched a scoreless eighth. It was the Yankees' largest run total since '62 and their biggest outburst at the Stadium in 39 years.

Third baseman Wade Boggs got four hits for the second straight game, the first time he'd done that since 1989; center-fielder Bernie Williams, ordinarily not a power threat, became the eighth player to homer into the centerfield scats since Yankee Stadium was refurbished in '76; and shortstop Mike Gallego hit two homers in a game for only the second time in his nine-year career. "No pitcher wants to give up homers to one of the smallest guys in the world, er, the league," said the 5'6" Gallego. "All I know is, I got more homers than Jose Canseco [who didn't get his first homer until Sunday]."

Ranger DH Canseco, who hurt his right elbow in an ill-advised relief stint last season, didn't pitch in this game, but he couldn't have done worse than Texas starter Kenny Rogers, who allowed eight runs in three innings. Worse still, Ranger catcher Ivan Rodriguez showed up Rogers by throwing his hands in the air and yelling, "Stupid pitch!" after Rogers gave up a single to DH Danny Tartabull in the second inning. Rogers and Rodriguez engaged in an animated conversation on the bench after the inning but reportedly settled their differences peacefully in the clubhouse after the game.

Friday: No-No, Chan Ho and Oh No!

The night of Mercker's no-hitter also marked the first appearance by a Korean—20-year-old Dodger pitcher Chan Ho Park—in the major leagues. Before the game a photographer working for The New York Times was shooting Park as he shagged flies in the outfield. Park saw the photographer and without warning did a headstand in centerfield for her. "I've heard of people standing on their heads to get a picture taken, but this...," the photographer said, shaking her head.

Park entered the game in the ninth inning to a standing ovation from the crowd of 36,546 at Dodger Stadium. The public-address announcer introduced him as Ho Chan Park, an error Park did't seem to notice. "That's like calling him Hershiser Orel," said one member of the vast Korean media contingent covering the game. Park walked the first two hitters he faced, gave up a two-run double to Pendleton and then retired the next three hitters, including two on strikeouts. He left to another standing O.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, fans were awaiting the Royals' first home run of the season in Kauffman Stadium; the K.C. ballpark has a new gimmick this year, in which a fireworks display is set off after each home run hit by a Royal. The fireworks were finally ignited in the eighth inning Friday against the Cleveland Indians, after a blast over the leftfield fence by—could it have been anyone else?—Vince Coleman. This was the same Vince Coleman who was suspended last August by the Mets after he injured three people in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by tossing an M-100 explosive out a car window.

Saturday: No W, Two Winners

Whom do you root for in a matchup like this? In Milwaukee the Angels' starter was Mark Leiter, pitching just three days after a memorial service was held for his nine-month-old son, Ryan, who died on Opening Day. Ryan had Werding-Hoffman disease, an infants' form of Lou Gehrig's disease. The opposing pitcher was the Milwaukee Brewers' Teddy Higuera, who had rotator cuff surgery in August 1991 and has battled to come back with a left arm that hasn't been sound in three years.

In his first outing for California after having been released by the Tigers on March 18, Leiter pitched six innings, allowed two runs and struck out six. He didn't get a decision in a game the Angels won 6-4.

When he was warming up in the bullpen, Leiter said later, "I felt guilty. Is this too soon? What am I doing? I kept thinking, I wish to god that Ryan was here." Leiter said he had trouble concentrating the first three innings. "It was harder than I thought it would be. I tried to put the personal stuff aside, but it was impossible to do. I'll be thinking about him the rest of my life, but I can't miss him when I'm on the mound."

Higuera also pitched six innings, allowing no earned runs and five hits, walking one and striking out six, including Angel rightfielder Tim Salmon three times. His fastball was clocked at 87 mph. "He's actually a better pitcher now because he has a good changeup," said Milwaukee pitching coach Don Rowe. "He never had a good one before he got hurt."

All that was missing from the old Higuera arsenal was his darting curveball, but he said it was coming. "In the other years I had weakness and pain after pitching," Higuera said. "But I want to talk about this year, not the past. This spring, no pain. I feel strong. I think I can still win."

Higuera is in the final year of a four-year, $13 million contract, during which he has contributed a total of four victories. "I don't think Teddy is going out there this season thinking about it being the last year of his contract, or about the money," said Brewer manager Phil Garner. "This is a guy with a lot of pride. I think he just wants to go out there and help somebody win."

Sunday: Thumbs Up

When Toronto rightfielder Joe Carter's right thumb was broken by a pitch from Minnesota's Scott Erickson on March 23, team doctors said he would be out approximately six weeks. But the next day, while DH Paul Molitor was looking around for an outfielder's glove, Carter barged into the Blue Jay clubhouse and announced he would be ready on Opening Day.

Sure, Joe.

Well, not only was Carter in rightfield for Monday's opener, but on Sunday he also homered and drove in five runs to lead Toronto to a 12-6 victory over the winless Seattle Mariners. Coupled with his heroics the day before—four RBIs, two of which came on a homer in the ninth to win the game—Carter was the American League co-leader in RBIs (12), and the leader in homers (four) and medical miracles (one).

"I can't bend it, there's still pain, but it's something I can live with," said Carter, who initially wore a splint on the broken thumb but hasn't even worn tape on it since the season began. Teammates are amazed by his quick return to the lineup.

Actually Carter is one of the game's most durable players, having missed only 16 games in the last six years. At different times in his career he has played with a broken nose, a broken hand and a cracked kneecap. "So," said Carter, who now has a chance to break his club record for RBIs in April (25), "this is nothing new."

Maybe not, but the performance by A's reserve outfielder Geronimo Berroa on Sunday certainly was. A last-minute starter against the Twins, he had five hits, including a double and a homer, and drove in five runs in a 15-5 win for Oakland.

Berroa was a nonroster player this spring, but he made the club after hitting five homers and driving in 18 runs. Those were exhibition stats, to be sure, but nevertheless impressive next to his career numbers: two homers, nine RBIs and a .233 average in 189 at bats with the Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and the Florida Marlins over the last five years.

Berroa's claim to fame before Sunday was that he had pinch-hit 65 times in the majors without driving in a run. At week's end, after 13 at bats, he was hitting .692 with two homers and seven RBIs.

It was that kind of week.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONV.J. LOVERO PHOTOJOHN SWART/APWith home runs in three consecutive at bats, Rhodes was a toughie on Opening Day. PHOTOPHILL SNEL/CANAPRESSCarter followed Delgado's power display with a long-ball act of his own. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROThe mighty Klesko waved his bat and made balls disappear, much to the delight of his mama. PHOTORAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERWith his second straight four-hit performance, Boggs led the Yanks' 18-run romp against the Rangers. PHOTOTOM LYNNWith more on their minds than balls and strikes, Higuera (above) and Leiter showed a lot of heart. PHOTOJOE PICCIOLO/AP[See caption above.]

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