Opening Day can be whatever the crowd chooses to make it. The patrons can arrive in a surly mood based on the disappointments they have suffered with the home team. They also can show up ready to make merry, no matter what foibles the athletes in the home laundry might have in store.
The greatest Opening Day crowd in Twins history showed up at Met Stadium on April 17, 1979 — greatest not in number but in attitude.
The energy crisis and runaway inflation were upon us, disco had lost favor but not cocaine, and Twins owner Calvin Griffith’s standing with the public was alleged to be at its lowest point.
This was based on Calvin having allowed many of his best assets to leave as free agents after the 1977 season, and then having traded both seven-time batting champion Rod Carew and outfielder Dan Ford to the California Angels during the 1978-79 offseason.
The loss of personnel was not Calvin’s lone P.R. issue. Near the end of the 1978 season, a friend convinced him to make the dinner speech at a Lions Club assembly in Waseca, Minn. He had a few cocktails and offered some comments that were intemperate.
You can look it up. I’m going to allow Calvin to rest in peace.
Opening Day had not been much of an event during the Twins’ first 18 years at Met Stadium. The lone sellout was the first one, on April 21, 1961, and it was only 24,606, with construction ongoing to expand the grandstand.
That still stood as the record for the Twins’ home opener entering 1979.
The fantastic-hitting team of 1977 had been broken up with the departures of Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock. The Twins had fallen to 73-89 with a home attendance of 787,878 in 1978.
Bostock was with the Angels when he was murdered in Gary, Ind., on Sept. 23, 1978. Four days before the shooting, Lyman was leaving Met Stadium for the Angels’ bus to the airport and shouted in the basement corridor:
“Hey, Poison, take it easy on Willie and Hosken. Those are my guys.’’
I gave Lyman a promise (with fingers crossed) to take a kinder view in print of the shortcomings of Willie Norwood and Hosken Powell, outfielders attempting without success to replace the Bostock-Hisle combo.
The Twins acquired veteran lefthander Jerry Koosman in December 1978. That didn’t seem enough to return competence in 1979. We had no clue the Twins would start 7-2 on a West Coast trip, or that Roy Smalley was planning to be the best hitter in the American League for the first half of the season.
The temperature had not been in the 60s for six months when the Twins returned from their successful opening expedition to Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle. The good start and a Carew homecoming with the Angels had the Twins raising the outside possibility of a record 25,000 ticket buyers for the opener.
Then, April 17 broke warm (high 67) and sunny and thousands of youthful Twin Citians said on that Tuesday: “The heck with school, the heck with work, let’s go to the ballgame, see Rodney and drink heavily.’’
There were so many people in line at the limited ticket booths that the Twins pushed back the starting time by 15 minutes. There were still ticket lines hundreds deep when Dave Goltz threw the first pitch around 1:20 p.m.
The lack of ticket sellers wasn’t the Twins’ worst crime in understaffing. They were way short of beer vendors.
“Beer, beer, send us beer!’’ resonated a chant from the left field pavilion.
Carew received a roaring ovation in pregame introductions, and standing ovations when he batted. It was a 1-0 game for the Angels into the fifth, and then California scored four times.
A “Dr. Strangeglove’’ banner in celebration of Norwood’s fielding flaws was spotted in the crowd, and Willie did not disappoint. The Angels’ four-run rally was capped when Rick Miller singled to center field, the ball went through Willie’s legs and to the wall and Miller circled the bases (single, three-base error).
There were jeers, but also laughs. And when Willie led off the fifth with a single, only to be picked off by Nolan Ryan, the laughs won the day.
There were 37,270 customers, youthful, thirsty and watching a home team shut out by Ryan (6-0), but there was sun, and comradeship, and a sure-fire solution for enjoyment:
Even if you’re jeering, be merry. It’s Opening Day.