It was Opening Day in 1986 at historic Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Ace Jack Morris was one the mound for the Tigers, toeing the rubber to face the Boston Red Sox. The first pitch Morris threw made history. Dwight Evans, the Red Sox All-Star right fielder, swept his bat through the strike zone and launched the pitch into the left field stands for a home run. In the history of Major League Baseball it was the first time that the first pitch of the season was hit for a home run.
Boston 1, Detroit 0.
The Tigers were two years removed from their magical World Series championship season. Their nucleus was still strong: Lance Parrish at catcher, Alan Trammell at shortstop, Lou Whitaker at second base, Chet Lemon in center field, Morris and Dan Petry leading their rotation, and Willien Hernandez in the role of closer. All of them were All-Stars. Darrell Evans, the reigning home run champion was at first base. Right fielder Kirk Gibson was in his prime. On this day he would flex his muscles and topple the Red Sox almost singlehandedly.
In the third, Jim Rice clubbed a homer off Morris, who was known for giving up the long ball and battling his way to win high scoring games. Today would be no different. In the bottom of the frame, Gibson stroked a single to right to score Darnell Coles. Boston 2, Detroit 1.
Morris settled down, and in the fifth the score stood the same. Dave Collins, the speedy bespectacled leadoff man acquired in the off-season, tripled into the right field gap, scoring Evans to tie the game. Two batters later, Gibson was up facing Bruce Hurst. There was a time when Gibson was stymied by left-handed pitchers, to the extent that Sparky Anderson would sit him against the toughest southpaws. Not now. Gibson was locked in as he faced Hurst. He launched a 2-2 pitch into the right-center lower bleachers. An impressive shot. Detroit 4, Boston 2.
In the seventh, the Sox tagged Morris for the longball again. Don Baylor hit a two-run shot, and Rich Gedman followed with a solo blast. Boston 5, Detroit 4. It looked like the Boston lineup was going to be too much for Morris on this day, with more than 51,000 fans watching at Tiger Stadium. On some level it was understandable. The BoSox lineup featured two future Hall of Famers (Rice and perennial batting champion Wade Boggs), Baylor (a former MVP), Evans (a former home run champion), Tony Armas (another former home run champ), and Bill Buckner, who had won a batting title and was months away from earning his goat’s ears in the infamous ’86 World Series.
But Gibson wasn’t finished. In the bottom of the seventh, Sweet Lou Whitaker singled to center off reliever Sammy Stewart. Boston manager John McNamara visited Stewart on the mound. Whatever he said didn’t sink in. Stewart’s first pitch to Gibson was a waist-high fastball on the inside part of the plate. Gibby uncoiled and sent it into the right field upper deck, where it was gladly greeted by ecstatic Tiger fans. Detroit 6, Boston 5.
Six outs later and the Tigers had their Opening Day victory by that same score. Kirk Gibson, the hometown boy, had muscled two home runs, added two singles, and driven in five of the Tigers six runs. It was one of the greatest Opening Day performances in Tiger history.