This was supposed to be opening week, the time when MLB fans everywhere look forward to making a season’s worth of memories. Because we won’t have games to get excited about for a while, we thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane by reliving some of our favorite baseball moments.
In the final installment of our weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to share their best behind-the-scenes moment, with only one rule: They had to be there to witness it.
Jesse Rogers: For Arrieta, onesie for the ages
Sometimes greatness has a defining moment. For former Chicago Cubs hurler Jake Arrieta, that came in late August 2015. He was in the midst of a stellar second half, but even as late as Aug. 30, his best was yet to come. On that night, the stage was set for one of the greatest pitching performances of our era.
The Cubs were starting to feel good about themselves then, but they were still a young team learning how to win — while Arrieta was learning how to dominate. It was Sunday Night Baseball, in Los Angeles. There’s no bigger stage.
The evening game meant the Cubs would have to fly overnight for a game 24 hours later at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds. Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t about to let the stress of that schedule get to his young roster. He ordered them to wear onesie pajamas on the flight home to loosen the mood — a scene that would prove surreal after the fact.
That night, Arrieta dealt like he had never dealt before. He struck out 12 in a 116-pitch no-hitter, producing a game score of 98. For perspective, the highest game score of all time is 105. Arrieta wasn’t far off. The spin he created on the ball in that game was the stuff of legend. The 2-0 win stopped a four-game slide by the Cubs and helped them to a wild-card berth.
Arrieta conducted his postgame media session wearing a “mustache” onesie was the icing on the cake of a memorable night. And it was his coming-out party that Cy Young Award voters wouldn’t forget.
Buster Olney: A dress-up standoff
Late in the 1995 season, when I was covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun, the team’s veterans implemented baseball’s standard hazing exercise on the rookies, replacing their street clothes with selected costumes. Armando Benitez refused to participate and stubbornly sat at his locker as teammates showered and boarded the team bus that was running outside of Milwaukee’s County Stadium. I stationed myself outside of the clubhouse and waited to see how the standoff would end.
Two teammates were sent back to the clubhouse as emissaries, in the hope of coaxing Benitez to the team bus. Finally, pitching coach Mike Flanagan walked into the clubhouse — and later, he told me that when he walked in, an enraged 6-foot-4 Benitez had cornered the chosen ambassadors in the shower with a bat. Like a fed-up parent, Flanagan told Benitez to get on the damn bus, and Armando stepped onto the concourse wearing his uniform socks, a pair of baseball pants and a white dress shirt, walking slowly to join his teammates.
David Schoenfield: Some insight into A-Rod
Each year, the Major League Baseball Players Association gives out its own awards — outstanding pitcher for each league, outstanding player, MLB player of the year and so on. For some reason, the awards have never caught on and we recognize the BBWAA awards as the “official” awards. In 2019, for example, the players voted Anthony Rendon as the National League’s most outstanding player over BBWAA MVP Cody Bellinger.
ESPN televised the awards ceremony after the 1998 season. That was the year of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the ceremony was held at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. I was an editor at ESPN at the time and my co-worker Ted and I conducted “chats” with each of the winners. After the winners came off the stage, they came to a back room where we had a computer set up and we spent five minutes or so feeding each player questions from readers. (The internet wasn’t so fast back then and the chat software was pretty rudimentary, so Ted and I actually cheated and selected questions ahead of time. Doing it in real time would have been a technological disaster.)
I remember Sosa coming down and giving Ted a big hug like he was Sosa’s long lost brother or something. Pedro Martinez held up his hand with the long fingers that seemed outsize for a man his size. Greg Maddux goofed on us with all his answers: “I have no idea what I’m doing out there. It’s all luck.”
Then Alex Rodriguez came in. Juan Gonzalez won the MVP award that year, but A-Rod was the players’ choice. (A-Rod finished a distant ninth in the MVP voting even though he hit .310 with 42 home runs and 46 steals.) A-Rod sat down at the table and was actually very interested in what we were doing and how the questions were coming in from readers.
A reader asked him about the new ballpark being built in Seattle that would open up midway through the 1999 season. A-Rod told us that some of the guys had gone over in September to take batting practice. The Kingdome, remember, was a very good home run park. A-Rod told us the ball didn’t carry at all in the new park and that it was not going to be a good hitters’ park. And that’s when I knew he wasn’t going to stay in Seattle for the long haul.
On October 6, 1985, 46-year-old Phil Niekro finishes off his 300th win with a strikeout in a complete game shutout for the Yankees.
Tim Kurkjian: Niekro won’t knuckle under
The Blue Jays clinched a playoff spot the second-to-last day of the 1985 season. So on the last day, “they were all hung over,” said Yankees knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, who was scheduled to pitch the season finale and was going for his 300th victory. The night before, he and his brother, Joe, also a Yankees pitcher, decided Joe would pitch in relief of Phil so he could potentially have a part in Phil’s historic 300th win.
“So with two outs in the ninth inning, Joe, not the pitching coach, came to the mound to tell me if I got one out more, I would be the oldest pitcher ever [age 46] to throw a shutout,” Phil said. “So I told him, ‘Forget our plan, get the hell off the mound!’ The Blue Jays had runners at second and third. Jeff Burroughs, who was a teammate of mine in Atlanta, was at the plate. We were deciding whether to walk him to load the bases. Burroughs looked at me, pointed to himself and said, ‘Pitch to me.’ He swung at a knuckleball that was three feet outside for the final out. It was the only knuckleball I threw the whole game.”
Tim Keown: Hendrick has last word
I was a rookie beat writer in 1991, sitting in the clubhouse of the old Scottsdale Stadium during a rain delay while a group of current and former Giants held court in the middle of the room — Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark, Don Robinson, Willie McGee. There was some serious experience around the table, and an impromptu storytelling session broke out. They started in on the wildest things they’d seen teammates do on the field, and at one point McGee stood up and launched into the best baseball story I’ve ever heard.
With two outs in the ninth inning of a game between the Reds and Cardinals, George Hendrick broke up a no-hitter by Mario Soto with a home run on a 2-2 count. That’s the basic version, the version you can find by looking up the box score from May 13, 1984.
The version McGee told? So much better. McGee stood in the center of the room and pantomimed Hendrick standing with the bat on his shoulder, watching strike one and then strike two with no apparent interest. He watched the 0-2 pitch, a ball outside, with the same indifference. But on the 1-2 pitch, Soto threw a fastball under Hendrick’s chin. Hendrick hit the dirt — bat and helmet flying — and then stood back up, grabbed his bat, palmed his helmet back on his head and got back in the box. It bears noting Hendrick was a mysterious dude of immense talent and no interest in the game’s frills.
(In another of McGee’s stories, Hendrick arranged to have a car waiting for him in the tunnel behind right field at Busch Stadium after the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, and when the last out was recorded, he jogged through the open gate and got in the car in full uniform, heading for the offseason.)
Anyway, Hendrick got back in the box, looked out at Soto without saying a word and proceeded to hit the next pitch, a changeup, over the left-field fence to tie the game and ruin Soto’s no-hitter at the last possible moment. Hendrick jogged around the bases dispassionately, put his helmet back in the rack, sat down on the bench and said to no one in particular, “I was going to let the man have his no-hitter.”
Alden Gonzalez: Trout, Pujols have initial ‘meeting’
I was there when Mike Trout and Albert Pujols first met, and it was awkward. It was the spring of 2012. Pujols was a fully formed superstar who had joined the Los Angeles Angels on a 10-year, $240 million contract. Trout was a 20-year-old prospect — a highly rated one, but a prospect nonetheless. He hung around the corner of the clubhouse with all the other young players who didn’t have a spot on the team.
One morning, Pujols was speaking with a teammate and Trout thought he caught his eye. “‘Sup, Pujols,” Trout blurted, nodding in his direction. Pujols didn’t acknowledge him. Trout stayed quiet, sunk back in his chair and turned to someone on his left. “You think he heard me?”
Not long thereafter, Trout began what has become a historical run of greatness. He became the dominant player of the 2010s, immediately after Pujols was the dominant player of the 2000s. His ascension relegated Pujols to the background, but Trout remained gracious. He celebrated every Pujols accomplishment and constantly spoke about him with reverence. In turn, Pujols guided Trout on how to handle stardom and how to maintain consistency when the expectations seemed impossibly high. He was among the few who could relate.
Sam Miller: A very sticky situation
There’s a ton of downtime between arriving at the ballpark and game time, and a lot of it gets spent sitting in the dugout, studying all of its banal details. Once, I was waiting for C.J. Wilson to meet me in the dugout for a pregame interview. I was staring at the rosin bag, and it occurred to me that I’d never held a rosin bag. I wondered what it felt like; dumbly, I was imagining it would be powdery and smooth, like a rock climber’s bag of chalk.
But rosin — you probably already know this, but I hadn’t made the connection! — is just the solid form of resin, a sticky and viscous tree secretion. It’s basically sap! I picked up the rosin bag and got a sap-sticky palm. Baseball is a handshake-obsessed work environment, and I realized immediately that I was going to have to shake a player’s hand any second.
So, in a panic, I went to the dugout water cooler to rinse my hands off. It splashed all over my pants and shirt, but at least I had something to scrub with. Except it wasn’t water. It was Gatorade. That’s when Wilson showed up.
Kiley McDaniel: Trea Turner‘s first impression
When covering the National High School Invitational tournament every March in Cary, North Carolina, I typically try to line up games from the nearby Division I colleges to catch as well, but in 2013, there weren’t a lot of options to see first-round types that weekend. I went to see N.C. State because they had two sophomores, left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, who were likely high first-round picks the next year. I hadn’t seen them before but had heard great things.
They were both excellent, even better than I expected. After comparing notes with a couple of scouts in attendance, we agreed Turner was a slightly superior prospect, and both were legitimate candidates to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft. Rodon ended up going third, and Turner slipped all the way to 13th after playing through injury for the summer and struggling at the plate in the first part of the spring.
I got a chance to speak with both of them after the game, and Rodon seemed very aware of his trajectory, unfazed by my interest as a writer, even though it was still going to be months until 30 MLB teams were knocking down his door.
Turner was very different. He was more candid and open and was legitimately surprised when I told him that I thought he was a little better than his heralded teammate. He told me he called the coaches at his dream school, Florida State, when he was in high school, to get them to come recruit him and they basically blew him off. He made a jump in talent as a senior in high school and N.C. State had an extra scholarship, so they were his best offer for college. He talked about how good it felt to perform well against the Seminoles as a freshman starter and how motivating it was to hear that I thought he could go that high in the draft.
Fast forward to the Futures Game a few years later, when Turner was now a top prospect on the verge of the major leagues. A man walked up to me and asked if my name was Kiley, then shook my hand. He was Trea’s dad, Mark, and he wanted to thank me for believing in his son before anyone else in pro baseball did. I assured him I had nothing to do with his son’s success, but he was thankful regardless.
I ran into Mark again years later in the Turner Field concourse when I worked for the Braves and Trea was really hammering us, while playing for the Nationals. I ran into Mark once again and met his wife, Donna, when I was scouting a prospect at Trea’s old high school (they still lived nearby and went to the games) and he recognized me standing behind the plate with a radar gun. They came down to say hello in front of the other scouts, who were all confused, because they knew I didn’t draft Trea. I still maintain I didn’t do anything different than any other scout or writer in my position would’ve done, but it always feels nice to be in on the ground floor of something and be recognized when you’re right, in a field that has so much inherent failure.
On October 20, 2018, the Dodgers advance to the World Series for the second year in a row after defeating the Brewers in Game 7 of the NLCS.
Dan Mullen: A manager and his MVP at season’s end
A couple of hours after the Brewers’ heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Dodgers in the 2018 NL Championship Series, I was making my way to the ride-sharing pickup area near the loading docks at Miller Park. To get there, I happened to walk through an otherwise empty area near the Brewers clubhouse while Christian Yelich and Craig Counsell were saying their goodbyes at the clubhouse door.
I overheard Yelich say something along the lines of, “Not bad for the first year in town. Counsell replied with, “Your year isn’t over yet,” talking about the MVP award Yelich would win the next month, and, “Next year will be even better,” while they gave each other a big hug on the way out.
It was such an incredibly sincere moment of respect and admiration between a star player and his manager, and it really drove home how getting so far to fall just short of the World Series felt for them.