This is how to start a season

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Dwight Evans, who coached Red Sox outfielders this spring, got the 1986 championship season off to an electrifying start (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)

The first person he told, Dwight Evans said, was his wife, Susan.

“I had a dream,’’ he said, “probably two weeks before the end of spring training. I don’t usually remember my dreams. This one I did. I told her, ‘I dreamed I hit the first pitch for a home run. I don’t know where it went, but it was a home run.’’’

This was 1986. Dwight Evans was 34 years old, a player entering his 15th season in the major leagues. The previous season, manager John McNamara had turned to Evans as his leadoff hitter for much of the season’s second half. Evans had homered five times leading off a game in 1985, but never on the first pitch of a season. That had happened just once in his life.

“In Little League,’’ he said. “I was 12 years old. I didn’t start playing baseball until I was 10. I hit it batting left-handed. I was a switch-hitter at the time. That didn’t last.’’

The Sox were scheduled to open the 1986 season in Detroit against the Tigers and their ace, Jack Morris, a 16-game winner the previous season. Morris was arguably the American League’s toughest right-hander in the ‘80’s, and Evans, like so many hitters, had his hands full against Black Jack. He had 52 previous at-bats against Morris, and had 10 hits, a .193 average. But he had taken Morris deep three times, the last time in 1984.

April 7, 1986. A Monday afternoon. First pitch for the Red Sox and Tigers was scheduled for 1:37 p.m. Cincinnati, which traditionally played the first game of the major league season, wasn’t scheduled until 2:05. The Tigers called it a “quirk” in the schedule. ‘There was no intention on the part of the commissioner, the American League or the Tigers to steal the thunder away from the Reds,” said Tigers spokesman Robert Miller.

The good folk of Cincinnati, especially deputy mayor J. Kenneth Blackwell, weren’t buying it. Blackwell blamed Sparky Anderson, the former Reds skipper now managing the Tigers.

”This is a Sparky Anderson-led offensive on a Cincinnati tradition,” he said, ”and we’re not going to stand by idly and let it happen.”

The fuss made the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Blackwell urged the City Council to pass a resolution upbraiding the commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, for allowing the Tigers to start first. He also urged Cincinnati fans to turn their watches back an hour before the start of the game, supposedly to confuse people about which game started first. He was kidding, we think. Considering he also urged a ban on all flights from Detroit to Cincinnati, we’re pretty sure he was.

Evans was aware of none of this. Even today, he thought the Sox and Tigers played first because there was a rain delay in Detroit.

What he was absolutely certain of that day, however, as he looked at a stadium packed with over 51,000 fans, is that Jack Morris was not going to start him off with an off-speed pitch. He was going to bring heat, Evans remembered thinking as he ducked under the low overhang of the runway leading to the dugout.

As the national anthem ended, someone grabbed Evans’ arm. It was Walt Hriniak, the Red Sox hitting coach. “He didn’t like me thinking about hitting home runs,’’ Evans said. “He thought it made my swing get a little bit bigger.’’

“What are you going to do?’’ Hriniak demanded of Dewey. “What are you going to do?’’

Evans didn’t hesitate. “I’m going to line a base hit to right-center,’’ he said.

Hriniak beamed. “Dynamite,’’ the hitting coach said.

Then Evans walked out to the on-deck circle. Marty Barrett, who would be batting second, was already there. Evans banged the knob of his bat on the ground, loosening the weighted doughnut wrapped around the barrel. “I look right at Marty,’’ Evans said, “and I say, ‘I’m going to take him deep on the first pitch.’’’

Evans stepped into the batter’s box. Morris went into his windup and sent the baseball plateward. First pitch of the 1986 season. Fastball, just as Evans had expected. Letter high, middle away, allowing Evans full extension on his swing. He sent the ball soaring, over the left-center field fence, to the left of the flagpole, more than 400 feet away.

“Mercy,’’ Ned Martin said on Boston TV.

The most surprised person in Tiger Stadium? He was, Dwight Evans said.

“I’m a man of faith,’’ he said, “and as I circled the bases, I looked up and said, ‘Thank you, God.’’’

The Red Sox hit four home runs that day off Morris. They still lost, 6-5, as Kirk Gibson drove in five runs and Black Jack went the distance. But Evans’ home run may have augured better things to come. It was the opening act of a season that ended with a trip to the World Series.

“It’s something I won’t forget,’’ said Evans, who spent spring training working with the Sox outfielders.  “It’s neat. It was a neat season.’’

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