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Jim Leyland talks about first pitch on Opening Day, Hall of Fame selection, and Pirates' strong start

For any Major League Baseball manager, Opening Days are always memorable. For Jim Leyland, the first of his MLB career with the Pittsburgh Pirates was impossible to forget.

Opening Days are always memorable for any MLB manager. For Jim Leyland, the first Opening Day of his MLB career with the Pittsburgh Pirates was unforgettable.

The opponent, the legendary 1986 Mets, also left a lasting impression.

“You realized quickly that they were the top players in the league,” Leyland said on 105.9 The X on Thursday.. “They won the World Series that year, and they had (defending Cy Young winner) Doc Gooden pitching on Opening Day.”

Thirty-eight years later, every detail Leyland remembered from that game at Three Rivers Stadium was accurate.

“The Mets scored two runs in the first off Rick Reuschel. However, our leadoff hitter that year was R.J. Reynolds. And Doc Gooden got two quick strikes on him. Then he hit the third pitch out of the ballpark to make it 2-1. It was an absolute thrill,” Leyland said.

After managing in the minors for 11 years, it’s no surprise that the memory of that moment resonates so strongly with Leyland nearly four decades later. Given his clear recollection of the events of that day, Leyland probably doesn’t need me to remind him that Gooden would only allow one more run and pitch a complete game resulting in a 4-2 victory.

Nor does he probably need me to remind him that his first win would come two games later against the Chicago Cubs, 3-1, thanks to a three-run homer in the eighth inning by Johnny Ray.

That marked the first of 1,769 wins for Leyland, with the first 851 occurring over 11 years in Pittsburgh. Three of those seasons (1990-92) resulted in National League divisional crowns — a feat the franchise hasn’t achieved since.

Following his time with the Pirates ending after the 1996 season, Leyland won a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997. After a 54-win season the next year and a one-year tenure in Colorado, Leyland managed the Detroit Tigers from 2006 to 2013. There, he made four playoff appearances, including two trips to the World Series. These achievements led to Leyland's election into the Baseball Hall of Fame in December.

In honor of this recognition, Leyland gets to have one more memorable Opening Day moment. The Pirates have invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday afternoon at PNC Park before the team’s 2024 home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I didn’t expect it. It’s quite an honor. I’m really looking forward to it,” Leyland said. “The way they’re playing, I think everybody is excited, and everybody is looking forward to it.”

Leyland noted that the Pirates have had a strong start. Their 7-4 victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday improved the team’s record to 6-1.

“They are very energetic, young, and enthusiastic. They have some really good arms,” Leyland said. “They have some talented players, and I think it’s nice to have (Andrew) McCutchen there to guide them, regardless of how much he produces.”

Leyland also discussed the significance of Oneil Cruz’s return to the lineup. Some believe Cruz may be the most naturally talented player the Pirates have brought in since McCutchen, or even Barry Bonds when he came out of Arizona State. However, Leyland is not ready to make that comparison just yet.

“Bonds was a college player, so he was a bit more experienced and, undoubtedly, one of the best players ever. He has many achievements that Cruz has not reached yet,” Leyland said. “Bonds had great natural ability. He had excellent offensive and defensive instincts.”

According to Leyland, Bonds was the first person to contact him after his Hall of Fame announcement, and Bobby Bonilla called shortly after.

Leyland also had the chance to see first-round pick Paul Skenes in Florida during spring training.

“Pittsburgh played Baltimore in Bradenton,” Leyland said of a game he saw with fellow Hall of Famer Joe Torre. “Skenes started the game and struck out the side and was hitting 101-102 (miles per hour). He’s the real deal. There’s no doubt about it.”

It’s uncertain when Skenes will make his first pitch at PNC Park. But we know Leyland will have one on Friday. And he is promising it’ll be from the top of the rubber.

None of this pitching from the base of the mound.

“I’ll pitch from the rubber,” Leyland joked. “I'm not sure if I'll make it. We'll see.”

Also, during the interview, Leyland talks about when he first felt at ease as a big league manager, his connections with Derek Shelton and Chuck Tanner, and why his Hall of Fame plaque will not feature a team logo.

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