The Opening Day vs. March Madness Celebrity Deathmatch
Jonathan Knight | On 03, Apr 2015
You may want to double-check where the “Previous Channel” button is on your remote control.
While Monday night marks the symbolic return of spring for Indians fans, it also signifies the final chapter of winter, at least in sports terms. While the Indians toil with the Astros in Houston, the NCAA men’s basketball championship will be played simultaneously in Indianapolis – or for most of us, just a push of a remote control button away.
Unless you are such a die-hard baseball fan (or have such a passionate disdain for John Calipari) that you won’t even acknowledge the title game over on CBS, you’ll likely be doing some flipping Monday night.
Admittedly, this is kind of a weird scenario, like a couple of years ago when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped. Ever since the NCAA championship became a big enough deal to be moved to weeknight primetime television in the early 1980s, it inadvertently created one of the greatest days of the sports calendar. For many of the years that have followed, Major League Baseball’s season would kick off with opening day games on a Monday afternoon, followed by the pinnacle of the college basketball campaign that evening.
This unique little setup is still in tact. Fourteen baseball games are scheduled for Monday, though the Indians will play in one of just three that directly conflict with basketball that evening. (On that note, conflict aside, isn’t it kind of depressing to deliberately schedule your opening day game at night? It just whiffs of wrongness and a lack of appreciation for the significance of the occasion. Like celebrating New Year’s at noon.)
This will mark the fourth time the Tribe has kicked off a season during the national championship. And judging by past history, toggling back and forth between the two is probably a good idea:
April 4, 1983
Indians 8, Athletics 5
North Carolina State 54, Houston 52
At almost the exact moment Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation air ball and dunked it at the buzzer to give N.C. State a colossal upset and provide college basketball with one of its iconic moments, Andre Thornton slammed a three-run homer in Oakland in his first at-bat of the season. It paved the way to a victory for starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe and the Indians’ first opening day triumph in five years.
Thornton may have provided the Lorenzo Charles-esque defining moment, but there were leaders abound for the Tribe that evening. Quietly dependable Toby Harrah laced four hits and both Rick Manning and Ron Hassey collected three apiece.
It turned out to be a bit of a one-night stand for both winners. The Indians wound up losing 92 games and firing manager Mike Ferraro in July. And the Wolfpack hasn’t returned to the Final Four since. But these details just make the night even more memorable.
April 4, 1988
Rangers 4, Indians 3
Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79
Oklahoma entered the ’88 Final Four much as Kentucky does this year: the clear-cut favorite that everybody hates. The Sooners were expected to carve up a mediocre Kansas team they’d already defeated twice in the regular season. Instead, Danny Manning etched his name in title-game lore with 31 points and 18 rebounds as the Jayhawks stunned OU.
Equally stunned that night were the Indians in Arlington. Just as Manning and Co. were wrapping up their upset, the Tribe saw a 3-1 seventh-inning lead over Texas swirl down the drain thanks to two errors on consecutive plays. A homer in the eighth by would-be-an-Indian-the-following-year Pete O’Brien provided the winning run as the Tribe squandered a terrific performance by Tom Candiotti and a season-leadoff home run by Julio Franco.
The good news was that the Indians would bounce back to win 10 of their next 11 in one of their hottest starts ever.
April 5, 2004
Twins 7, Indians 4 (11 innings)
Connecticut 82, Georgia Tech 73
Eerily similar deal 16 years later. C.C. Sabathia had been brilliant, allowing only two hits over seven shutout innings as the Indians took a 4-0 lead into the eighth in the Metrodome, thanks in part to homers by Jody Gerut and Travis Hafner. It appeared the Indians were cruising just as Connecticut was over Georgia Tech in what would prove to be one of the least memorable basketball title games in recent memory.
Then the Tribe bullpen imploded. The Twins scored four in the eighth to tie the game, which tumbled into extra innings. Matt Lawton was thrown out at the plate in the 10th to keep the Indians from taking the lead, and Chad Durbin allowed a two-out, three-run homer to Shannon Stewart in the 11th to give Minnesota the victory. Amazingly, it was just the first of three walk-off losses for the Indians in the opening week of the season.
Come what may, if past history is any indication, at least one of Monday night’s games should be worth remembering.