Starting off the season with a bang looks at top moments from Opening Days past

Birthday boy Carlos Santana homered on Opening Day in '09 '10. (Kevin Pataky/

By Ashley Marshall / Special to | April 3, 2012 6:19 PM ET

Opening Day around the Minor Leagues can mean thousands of things to millions of people. There have been pro debuts, of course, but also cycle bids and stadium openings, snow delays, near perfect pitchers and memorable endings.

With 120 teams taking to the field across 10 leagues and four classifications Thursday, storylines are plentiful in ballparks everywhere around the country.

Here's a look at some of the most memorable performances, memories and events from Opening Day in the Minors.

April 18, 1946: Jackie Robinson's Minor League debut

One of the most significant events in baseball history occurred when the Montreal Royals took the field of Roosevelt Stadium on Opening Day in 1946. Making his professional debut, Jackie Robinson went 4-for-5 with a three-run homer, four RBIs, four runs scored and two stolen bases in the Royals' 14-1 International League victory over the Jersey City Giants. Batting second, Robinson grounded out to shortstop on a full-count pitch in the top of the first inning, but he went deep over the left-field fence in the third for his first professional home run.

Robinson reached on a bunt single in the fifth, stole second base, advanced to third on a groundout and came home when Giants pitcher Phil Oates balked with Robinson dancing off the bag and bluffing for home. He then singled and stole second again in the seventh before bunting for another base hit in the eighth. Herb Andrews was now on the mound for Jersey City, but once Robinson reached third base the result was the same. Andrews committed a balk and Robinson scored his fourth run of the game. Around 50,000 fans -- more than double the stadium's capacity -- watched Robinson's first game in person that Thursday afternoon.

April 1, 1950: Texas League old-timers' day

The most memorable Opening Day in Texas League history drew 54,151 fans to the Cotton Bowl to celebrate some of the game's greatest stars. The previous record for a Texas League game was 1,018 set in 1930.

Prior to the start of the Tulsa Oilers' game with the Dallas Eagles, nine fan favorites from the past took to the field to face Oilers' leadoff hitter Harry Donabedian. Eagles manager Charlie Grimm was at first base, with Charlie Gehringer at second, Travis Jackson at short and Frank "Home Run" Baker at third. From left to right in the outfield were Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb. Behind the plate was Mickey Cochrane and on the hill was Dizzy Dean. Seven of the nine positions were occupied by seven current or future Baseball Hall of Fame members.

After Dean missed with a 3-2 pitch to Donabedian, the all-time stars left the field, replaced by the regular Dallas Eagles lineup. Donabedian returned to the plate for the official start of the game which the Oilers won 10-3.

April 8, 1988: A controversial end to a new beginning

The San Jose Giants played their very first game against the Visalia Oaks at Recreation Park on Opening Day in 1988.

San Jose took an 8-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, but closer Doug Robertson allowed the first three batters to reach base on a dropped fly ball, a single to right field and a run-scoring infield hit.

Oaks right fielder Kenny Morgan then hit a ground-rule double to right-center field, an area of the park that was covered in almost total darkness because of the lack of regulations covering stadia lighting. The double scored Mike Randle, with Eccles stopping at third and Morgan cruising into second.

Said Chris Lampe, then a minority owner of the San Jose Giants and now California League historian: "The Public Address Announcer commented over the PA system, 'ground-rule double'. There was one problem, however. California League umpire Dick Fossa, standing near second base called it as he saw it, in the black hole, a home run." The ground-rule-double-turned-home-run gave the Oaks a wild, 9-8 come-from-behind victory.

April 6, 2000: Pena shows sign of things to come

In his Texas League debut for Tulsa, Carlos Pena belted two home runs -- including a seventh-inning grand slam -- and plated six runs to lead the Drillers in a 9-7 win over the visiting Shreveport Captains. Drafted 10th overall by the Texas Rangers in the 1998 Draft, the 2000 season marked just his second full season in pro ball.

Pena's Opening Day fireworks set the tone for the rest of the season as he went on to produce his best Minor League numbers. He finished the year with a .299 average, 28 homers, 36 doubles and 105 RBIs in 138 appearances for the Drillers.

He would make his big league debut as a September call-up with the Rangers in 2001 after dominating the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with the Oklahoma RedHawks. It took another eight seasons and five organizations for Pena to make his first All-Star team as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

April 4, 2003: Harden unhittable, Piedra plays spoiler

Selected in the 17th round of the 2000 Draft, Rich Harden had only already appeared in 46 games -- 42 starts -- by the time Opening Day rolled around in 2003. He had spent the second half of the previous year with the Double-A Midland RockHounds and, judging by the way he mowed down his opponents at the start of the new campaign, he had no intention of remaining there long.

In front of a packed house at the Dell Diamond in Round Rock on April 4, 2003, Harden pitched six perfect innings, striking out nine, to help the RockHounds to a 5-0 win over the Express. Round Rock third baseman Jason Alfaro got the only hit of the game for Round Rock with an eighth inning single off of Jack Krawczyk.

Amazingly, on April 8, in his second start of the year, Harden tossed seven more perfect innings in Midland's 4-1, two-hit win over the Express. Consequently, Harden was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento after the game.

Elsewhere on Opening Day 2003, Jorge Piedra was making some noise of his own about 200 miles north of Round Rock. The Drillers outfielder played the role of spoiler, hitting for the cycle in a 16-2 rout of the hometown Frisco RoughRiders, who were playing their first game in the new 10,000-seat stadium and making their Texas League debut.

The 24-year-old hit a solo homer to lead off the second inning, and he singled and doubled in the fourth as the team batted around. He completed his cycle bid with a triple in the eighth frame. Piedra -- who also singled and scored in the sixth -- finished the game 5-for-6 with four runs scored and three RBIs.

The Piedra cycle was the first for the Drillers since Hank Blalock two cycles in three days for Tulsa in 2001. Piedra hit for the cycle again in June -- one of only three Minor Leagues to achieve the feat twice in one season -- and he went on to make his Colorado debut in August the following year.

April 8, 2004: Young's explosive debut

Delmon Young was the top overall pick of the 2003 Draft, but because he waited until September to sign his contract did not suit up until the following year.

Young made his pro debut as a 17-year-old on April 8, 2004, for the Class A Charleston River Dogs of the South Atlantic League. The highly touted prospect wasted no time introducing himself, slugging a mammoth three-run homer off the batter's eye in center field in the sixth inning following an hour-long rain delay.

The Rays phenom's blast came in a losing effort, however, as the Greensboro Bats were 9-5 victors in front of more than 4,000 fans at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park.

April 7, 2005: Midwest League no-no's

Casey Janssen, a 2004 fourth-round Draft pick, started his first full professional season with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League in 2005. In his first start, Janssen spun seven no-hit innings in the Lugnuts' 1-0 victory over the Fort Wayne Wizards. Janssen walked one batter and fanned seven Wizards, who got a solid pitching performance of their own from starter Mike Ekstrom. He surrendered just one hit and a walk over six scoreless frames.

On the other side of Lake Michigan, Anthony Swarzak was baffling hitters, too. The 19-year-old -- selected in the second round of the '04 Draft -- struck out eight batters over six no-hit innings in the Beloit Snappers' 2-1 win over Swing of the Quad Cities. The Snappers' bullpen carried the no-no into the eighth inning, but the Swing's Mike Ferris broke up the bid with an RBI double.

April 6, 2006: Free baseball in Tulsa

From the very first pitch of the new season, the Wichita Wranglers must have thought the season opener was in the bag. The visiting Wranglers scored three runs off Tulsa Drillers' starter Enmanuel Ulloa in the top of the first inning, two more in the sixth inning to extend the lead to 5-1 and then another three in the seventh to move ahead 8-2.

But the Drillers were not about to disappoint their fans on Opening Day. The hosts clawed back one run in the home half of the seventh before rallying for five runs in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings. The Tulsa bullpen surrendered just one more walk -- and no hits -- over the next six innings, and catcher Alvin Colina, the prospect Chris Iannetta's backup, hammered a walk-off homer off Ryan Braun in the 16th inning.

The contest was the longest in the history of Drillers Stadium, which opened in 1981. The game, which began 30 minutes late due to thunderstorms in the Tulsa area, ended at 12:28 a.m., taking four hours, 55 minutes to complete. The 4,805 in attendance saw the teams hit a combined 17-for-118 (.144 batting average) with 33 strikeouts and 54 runners left on base.

April 3, 2008: Pitcher perfect

Opening Day in 2008 was dominated by strong pitching performances across the upper classifications. Kei Igawa threw six perfect innings and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees' bullpen surrendered just one hit in a 4-0 shutout of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs as the Baby Bombers snapped a streak of eight consecutive Opening Day losses.

Elsewhere, Tommy Hanson fanned 13 batters over five hitless innings in the Myrtle Beach Pelicans' 2-0 win over the Wilmington Blue Rocks, and Rick Porcello allowed a lone hit in five innings of his professional debut in the Lakeland Flying Tigers' 4-1 triumph over the Tampa Yankees.

April 8, 2009 and April 8, 2010: Twice as nice on your birthday

Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana had an extra reason to celebrate Opening Day not once, but twice. The birthday boy slugged a three-run homer in the Akron Aeros' 9-5 win over the Bowie Baysox in 2009. The next year, on his 24th birthday, he went 4-for-5 with two homers and four RBIs in his Triple-A debut for the Columbus Clippers, a 17-4 rout of the Indianapolis Indians.

In six seasons in the Minors, Santana batted .290 with 75 homers and 360 RBIs. He made his big league debut with Cleveland on June 11, 2010, after 526 games down on the farm.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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