By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When you examine a list of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Opening Day starting pitchers, all the names you’d expect to see are on it.
There’s Roy Halladay (seven Opening Day starts), Dave Stieb (four), Jimmy Key (three), Pat Hentgen (two) and Jim Clancy (two).
Other prominent names on the list include Todd Stottlemyre, Jack Morris, Juan Guzman, David Cone, Roger Clemens, David Wells, Chris Carpenter, Ricky Romero, R.A. Dickey and Marcus Stroman.
But when I peruse this list, my eyes always stop at one name — Mark Bomback.
Why did Bobby Cox, in his first regular season game as Blue Jays manager 39 years ago today, give Bomback the Opening Day nod?
It’s a question I’ve pondered for years, but I haven’t investigated until now.
At first glance, it would seem Cox had much better options than Bomback, a soft-throwing, soon-to-be 29-year-old journeyman, who, at that point, had spent the bulk of his 11 professional seasons in the minors.
Why not give the ball to Dave Stieb, the 24-year-old with the killer slider who won 11 games and posted a 3.19 ERA for the 37-69 Blue Jays in 1981?
Or to 26-year-old Jim Clancy who had started the previous year’s opener and had been a staple of the club’s rotation since 1977?
Even Luis Leal, who had registered a 3.68 ERA in 29 appearances in 1981, made more sense.
But Cox was a Hall of Famer manager, so I figured there had to be an explanation — and there was.
The Blue Jays had been scheduled to play the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium in their first two games on April 6 and April 8, but those two contests were snowed out. It appears Cox’s plan was to pitch Stieb and Clancy in those two games.
The Blue Jays then returned home to face the Milwaukee Brewers in an afternoon game on April 9 and they didn’t want to mess with the throwing schedules of the rotation members. Also, the forecast for the home opener called for light snow and a temperature hovering around zero. The conditions were not ideal for the young arms of Stieb, Clancy and Leal – who were all in their mid-twenties and considered cornerstones of the club’s rotation in the future.
It should also be noted that Bomback had been a steady contributor to the Blue Jays in 1981 after being acquired from the Mets prior to the season. In 20 appearances – including 11 starts – Bomback, who also had tenures in the Boston Red Sox and Brewers organizations, was 5-5 with a 3.89 ERA in 90-1/3 innings. And in the season prior to that, he had posted a 10-8 record and a 4.09 ERA in 162-2/3 innings in 36 appearances (25 starts) for a hapless New York Mets squad.
Bomback had also enjoyed a strong spring with the Blue Jays, allowing just one earned run in his final three starts. In his last Grapefruit League outing, he had tossed seven innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on March 31.
So it was with all of this on his resume that Bomback got the Opening Day start for the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium 39 years ago against a powerful Milwaukee Brewers squad.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go well.
Bomback was roughed up for six runs on six hits and recorded just one out before he was mercifully lifted by Cox. The biggest blows were a two-run double by Cecil Cooper and a two-run home run by Ben Oglivie. Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount also contributed singles. Bomback left the game with an ERA of 162.00.
The Blue Jays’ relievers didn’t fare much better. The Brewers added nine more runs off Dale Murray, Jerry Garvin and Jim Gott in the Blue Jays’ 15-4 loss. For his part, Cox wasn’t around to see the end. He was ejected in the sixth inning for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Terry Cooney.
“You can’t manage, anyhow, when you’re down by six runs in the first inning,” Cox told reporters after the game. “Bomback pitched well all spring so today was something different. He’s a breaking ball pitcher and when it’s cold out, it’s sometimes difficult for him to hang on to the ball. He just got it up a little bit.”
But Cox also gave Bomback a vote of confidence.
“You can’t make a season out of it,” said Cox of the lopsided loss. “Our pitching is going to be the difference this year. Mark Bomback will stay in the rotation.”
Bomback did stay in the rotation, but only for seven more starts before being shifted to the bullpen in late May. Two months later, with his ERA at a gaudy 6.03, he was sent down to triple-A Syracuse. Bomback continued to pitch in triple-A through 1984, but never resurfaced in the big leagues.
And the Blue Jays wouldn’t need him. Stieb, Clancy and Leal, who followed Bomback in the rotation to open the 1982 season, each proceeded to win at least 12 games and pitch at least 249 innings in 1982.
So while Bomback struggled that season, the young Blue Jays, under Cox, showed tremendous improvement, finishing 78-84. That win total was 11 more than they had recorded in any previous full campaign.
And the confidence the young Blue Jays pitchers gained that season helped propel the club into its most successful era in franchise history – an era that saw the team register 11 consecutive winning seasons from 1983 to 1993. An era when Blue Jays fans would get to watch pitchers like Stieb, Clancy, Key, Stottlemyre and Morris start on Opening Day rather than Bomback.