When he connected with a fastball in the 8th inning on opening day in 2005, Dmitri Young knew the ball was gone. He flipped his bat to the side and did a quick hop-step as he left the batters’ box and watched the ball soar into the right field stands at Comerica Park.
“Man, that felt good,” Young said later, placing a long emphasis on the “oo” sound in the word “good”.
It wasn’t the first good feeling for Young that day, it was his fourth hit and third home run of the game, delighting the record crowd, his teammates, and himself. Few players ever got more of a thrill from playing the game than Young. Whether he was admiring one of his home runs, sliding headfirst into second with what could have easily been a stand-up double, flipping his own helmet off as he ran the bases, or grimacing with his remarkable expressive face after “just missing one”, Young was a performer as much as a ballplayer.
There were other things for Detroit fans to cheer about on April 4, 2005. Like fuzzy-faced Jeremy Bonderman becoming the youngest pitcher to ever start opening day for the Tigers and being the first 21-year old to win an opening day game for any team since 1986, when Dwight Gooden did it for the Mets. There was a home run from Brandon Inge in his first at-bat of the season. Then, as he is now, Inge was a polarizing figure: half of Tigers Nation loved him, half winced when he came to the plate. There was Magglio Ordonez making his Tigers debut and Troy Percival too.
But the afternoon and the spotlight belonged to Young, known to fans in the D as “Da Meat Hook”. In the more than 135 year history of professional baseball, only two other ballplayers – George Bell and Tuffy Rhodes – had ever belted a trio of homers in the first game of the season.
“It was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen on opening day,” manager Alan Trammell said.
The visiting team was running out “Lima Time” at the Tigers, but the Royals’ hurler (Jose Lima, a former Tiger) was off his game that afternoon. Inge hit his homer off Lima in the second inning, just minutes after Young’s first blast. That first homer by Dmitri was the most impressive, it traveled more than 435 feet to deep right-center field, the cavernous region of the Tigers ballpark. In the next inning, Young hit his second homer, this one to short right field to give the Tigs a 5-0 lead.
They led 9-2 by the time Young hit his magical third homer in the 8th frame, off reliever Mike MacDougal. By that time, the crowd of more than 44,000 was busy planning their exit strategy from downtown Detroit, the game long decided. The 11-2 score was the final, and the everything seemed perfect in Tigerland: an opening day win, an historic display of power from Young, and new faces in the lineup that made the dismal 119-loss season of 2003 seem far further in memory than just two years. Opening Day can do tricks like that.