Slugfest: Cubans with Homers on Opening Day

By Aliet Arzola

Last Thursday, a slider by right-handed Ryan Tepera left the bat at 106.7 miles per hour and traveled 422 feet to dead center field in Angel Stadium, where the Houston Astros started the season with a win. Yordan Álvarez, one of the strongest current Cuban hitters, sent the ball out of the park and became Cuba’s first player to hit a home run in the 2022 MLB season.

Less than 24 hours later, Adolis García emulated him and blew a sinker by reliever Adam Cimber in Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The ball left the bat at 104.8 miles per hour and traveled 404 feet. The Texas Rangers outfielder emulated Adonis García and thus became the first pair of Cuban brothers to hit a homerun on Opening Day.

Apart from their individual accolades, both homeruns have a common point, and it is that it allows the two players to join the list of Cubans with a homer on Opening Day, which now has only 22 players of the over 110 who have played the first game of the season since 1912 to this date.

However, the home run history of Cuba on Opening Day started to be written later on, exactly on April 17, 1945, almost 77 years ago. The label of that first Cuban home run to start a season was placed by Bobby Estalella, a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, who hit a round-tripper against Dutch Leonard (Washington Senators) in a slugfest won by the capital team 14-8.

Estalella’s blast came in the third inning, with a runner on base, with his team trailing 4-0. The hit, however, was close to not happening, as the Cuban had hit a foul fly that Senators second baseman George Myatt misplayed. This error allowed the A’s centerfielder to readjust and hit the ball out of the park.

After this first homer, there was a 15-year wait for another Cuban to hit one on the season opener. The next one would be Tony González (Cincinnati Reds), on April 12, 1960, when he punished Robin Roberts (Philadelphia Phillies) in the fifth inning with a runner on base.

That was a historic one, because “El Haitiano” became the first of six Cubans to hit the ball out of the park in his MLB debut, but the only one who has done it on Opening Day. The rest of Cubans who have homered in their first MLB game are Bert Campaneris (1964), Kendrys Morales (2006), Eddy Rodríguez (2012), Jorge Soler (2014) and Yordan Álvarez (2019).

But the Cuban emotions on the 1960 Opening Day. seven days later, on April 19, Orestes Miñoso sealed a glorious return to the White Sox after two years in Cleveland, when he homered twice in the season opener for the team of the South Side of Chicago.

Miñoso’s first blast of the day was a grand slam (vs. Johnny Kucks) to set a 9-2 score in the fourth inning. The game looked decided, but the Kansas City Athletics started coming from behind and tied the game in the ninth inning. This allowed “Mr. White Sox” to decide the match.

In the bottom of the ninth, against JohnTsitouris, Minnie hit a long ball that got lost in center left, and left Kansas City out of the game. The outfielder, who drove in six runs hat day, became the first Cuban with two Opening Day homers and also the first with a walk-off in the season opener.

Two years, later, Román Mejías also hit two homers on Opening Day. On April 10, 1962, el Houston Colt .45s outfielders homered against Don Cardwell and Al Lary, both times with two runners on, driving in six runs and tying with Miñoso for the most RBI on Opening Day.

In the 1960s, Cincinnati Reds’ shortstop Leo Cárdenas also added to Cuba’s homering feast on Opening Day, by hitting one out of the park on April 15, 1966, in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. His victim was reliever Roger Craig in the ninth inning, giving the Reds a 3-2 lead, although they would lose 4-3.

The next Cuban in the list of Opening Day homers in Tany Pérez, who would repeat the feat. The star slugger for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine hit a homer on el April 10, 1968, against Pete Mikkelsen (Chicago Cubs), in the fifth inning with two runners on base.

The Central Violeta phenom would hit three other homeruns on season openers, and would establish himself as the leader among all Cubans in this stat. One curious fact is that his last Season Opener blasts would come against two eventual members of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. we hereby show you details:

* With the Reds, on April 5, 1971 vs. Phil Niekro (Atlanta Braves) 6th inning, one runner on.

* With the reds Reds, on April 4, 1974 vs. Phil Niekro (Atlanta Braves) 8th inning, two runners on.

* With the Montreal Expos, on April 9, 1977 vs. Steve Carlton (Philadelphia Phillies) 6th inning, solo.

But Tany Pérez would not be the only slugger of the 1970s. San Francisco Giants secons baseman Tito Fuentes (vs. Don Wilson, Houston) also joined the party on April 15, 1972, while the great Tony Oliva imitated him in 1973 (vs. Oakland on April 6) and 1975 (vs. Texas on April 8) with homers against Catfish Hunter and Fergie Jenkins, respectively, both Hall of Famers and Cy Young winners.

We later had the era of José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, Cuba’s two homerun hitters in the MLB, although both have been pointed out because of their use of performance-enhancing drugs. They were the only Cubans to homer on Opening Day in the 1980s and 1990s:

* Canseco (Oakland): on April 4, 1988 vs. Mark Langston (Seattle) 8th inning, solo.

* Palmeiro (Texas):  on April 3, 1990 vs. Todd Stottlemyre (Toronto) 1st inning, one runner on.

* Palmeiro (Texas):  on April 8, 1991 vs. Dan Plesac (Milwaukee) 8th inning, solo.

* Palmeiro (Baltimore):  on April 4, 1994 vs. Billy Brewer (Kansas) 7th inning, solo.

* Canseco (Tampa Bay): on April 5, 1999 vs. Mike Mussina (Baltimore) 5th inning, solo.

After this stage, it was necessary to wait over ten years for another Cuban to homer on Opening Day. The one to end the drought was Royals shortstop Yunieski Betancourt, who got a two-run shot off Justin Verlander (Detroit) on April 5, 2010.

That very day, Kendrys Morales también also homered against Minnesota reliever José Mijares. The great slugger was coming off an imposing 2009 season with the Angels, in which he hit 34 homers, drove in 108 runs and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. He started 2010 really hot, with 11 homers and 39 RBIs in 51 games, but an unfortunate injury in a walk-off grand slam celebration at the plate damaged his career for two years.

“Riquimbili” and Kendrys marked the start of a time with Cuban highlights in terms of Opening Day. As a matter of fact, in nine of the last 12 years there have been Cuban homers on season openers, counting the ones this week by Yordan Álvarez and Adolis García.

We hereby leave the Cuban Opening Day homers since 2010:

* April 1, 2013: Yonder Alonso (San Diego) vs. Jon Niese (Mets) 6th inning, solo.

* April 6, 2015: José Abreu (White Sox) vs. Yordano Ventura (Kansas) 7th inning, solo.

* April 4, 2016: Adonis García (Atlanta) vs. Max Scherzer (Washington) 4th inning, solo.

* April 3, 2017: Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers) vs. Jhoulys Chacin (San Diego) 3rd inning, solo.

* April 3, 2017: Yasmani Grandal (Dodgers) vs. José Torres (San Diego) 8th inning, one runner on.

* March 29, 2018: José Abreu (White Sox) vs. Danny Duffy (Kansas) 4th inning, one runner on.

* July 24, 2020: Yoennis Céspedes (Mets) vs. Chris Martin (Atlanta) 7th inning, solo.

* July 24, 2020: Yoan Moncada (White Sox) vs. José Berríos (Minnesota) 2nd inning, two runners on.

* April 1, 2021: Jorge Soler (Kansas) vs. Kyle Cody (Texas) 4th inning, solo.

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