Zack Greinke will take the mound at Chase Field Monday night for the Arizona Diamondbacks in their season opener against the Colorado Rockies.
It’s a performance that is four months in the making. Last December, the D-backs shocked the baseball world by inking Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million deal, outbidding the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the process.
Greinke’s first game wearing Sedona Red and black is one of the most anticipated debuts by an Arizona athlete in recent memory.
Here’s a look back at some other anticipated Arizona debuts — it’s “The 5!”
5. Wayne Gretzky’s coaching debut with the Coyotes
On Aug. 8, 2005, the man known simply as “The Great One” became the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer (by almost 1,000 points more than second-place Mark Messier) had served as the team’s managing partner since 2001, but decided to head behind the bench for the ‘Yotes.
In October, the Coyotes played their first game under Coach Gretzky — a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. That first season, the Coyotes won 38 games — a 14-game improvement over the previous season, which was coached by Bobby Francis and Rick Bowness.
Excitement about Gretzky the coach died down over his four-year run at the helm. Phoenix never had more than 83 points in a single season under his watch and never qualified for the playoffs.
4. Justin Upton breaking into the big leagues
The 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks were wretched. The D-backs finished 51-111 — the worst record in Major League Baseball by a full seven games. Thus, the franchise got the honor of picking first in the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft. They selected Virginia High School phenom Justin Upton, who in those days, was a top-flight infield prospect.
For two seasons, Upton played very well in minor league stops at Class-A South Bend, Class-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile. He was called up to the D-backs in August of 2007 in the heat of a pennant race when Carlos Quentin suffered an injury. Upton made his debut Aug. 2, pinch-hitting for Eric Byrnes in an 11-0 loss to the Padres at Petco Park. Upton led off the ninth inning against Will Ledezma, fouling out to first base.
The next day, he started his first game, going 0-for-4 in a 1-0 win over the Dodgers. The day after that, Upton got his first hit — an infield single to third base off of Derek Lowe in an 8-7 win. In that first season, the 19-year-old Upton played in 43 games, hitting .221. He also saw action in the postseason after the D-backs claimed their fourth NL West title.
Upton would go on to play six years for the Diamondbacks, and was a two-time All-Star, but never reached the level of stardom the franchise hoped for in 2005. He was traded to the Atlanta Braves in December of 2012 and played the 2015 season in San Diego before signing a free agent deal with the Detroit Tigers this offseason.
3. Jake Plummer goes from college hero to NFL starter
Plummer arrived on campus at Arizona State University as a scrawny freshman from Idaho in 1993. Four years later, he left the school as Sun Devil royalty.
The ASU quarterback led the Devils to an 11-0 regular-season record, a Pac-10 championship and his touchdown run with 1:40 left gave his team a 17-14 lead over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes would drive downfield for a game-winning touchdown that dashed ASU’s national championship hopes moments later.
Regardless, Plummer was a legend. And he didn’t have to leave town to play pro football. The Arizona Cardinals picked him in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft, much to the delight of fans who had seen a seemingly never-ending carousel of mediocre quarterbacks man the position since the team moved to the Valley in 1988.
However, Plummer wasn’t a savior from day one. He’d have to wait his turn behind starter Kent Graham. The Cardinals limped to a 1-5 start to the ’97 season and were trailing the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 8 — a game started by Stoney Case. Head coach Vince Tobin turned to the rookie with the Eagles leading 7-3 in the fourth quarter. Plummer capped his first pro drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Williams that gave Arizona a 10-7 advantage with 3:07 remaining.
Philadelphia would get a game-tying field goal from Chris Boniol with :26 left and win the game in overtime. But the stage was set — Plummer would get his first start at Sun Devil Stadium in Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans. It didn’t go well; the Oilers sacked the rookie six times and had four interceptions — including a pick-6 from Denard Walker — in an easy 41-14 win.
Plummer held on to the starting job for the rest of the season, and for the next six years. In his second season, he led the Cardinals to an NFC Wild Card berth and their first playoff victory since 1947.
2. Randy Johnson’s desert debut with the D-backs
If you thought the baseball world was shocked in December when the Diamondbacks landed Greinke, imagine how they felt in 1999 when the D-backs, fresh off a 97-loss inaugural season, signed Randy Johnson to a $52 million free-agent contract.
Johnson was one of baseball’s biggest names during his time with the Seattle Mariners, where he also became one of its most feared pitchers. “The Big Unit” won 20 games in 1997 and finished in the top three of the American League Cy Young balloting four times in a five-year stretch. But fearing they’d lose him for nothing in free agency, the Mariners traded him to the Houston Astros at the 1998 deadline.
The massive lefty was virtually unhittable in his 11 starts with Houston, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in only 84.1 innings of work. He helped Houston to an NL Central division title, but the Astros bowed out in the NLDS, losing in four games to the eventual league-champion San Diego Padres.
But it was the D-backs who outbid the Rangers, Angels and Dodgers in signing Johnson.
His first start came on Opening Day 1999 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers and Johnson wasn’t great. He pitched seven innings, allowing five hits and six walks in an 8-6 loss. That game was not indicative of the dominance Johnson would provide every fifth day for the next six years. He won four straight Cy Young Awards from 1999 to 2002 and helped lead the D-backs to their one and only World Series title in 2001.
1. Sir Charles rekindles the Valley’s love for the Suns
It’s rare in the world of sports that a not-guilty verdict becomes the first chapter of a great story, but that’s exactly what happened in the summer of 1992.
Charles Barkley was found not guilty on misdemeanor charges in Milwaukee, opening the door for the Phoenix Suns to complete a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers to land the six-time All-Star.
Phoenix was already in a fever pitch over the opening of a new state-of-the art downtown arena and the team’s first major uniform overhaul since its inception in 1968. Adding a global superstar like Barkley to the mix was like pouring gas on an already out-of-control fire.
The Suns opened their season Nov. 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers at America West Arena, and Barkley wasted no time in setting the tone for what would be a magical campaign for himself, the franchise and the city of Phoenix. Barkley scored 37 points grabbed 21 rebounds (including 12 on the offensive glass) and dished out eight assists in a 111-105 win. He was just getting started.
The Suns won a franchise-record 62 games and advanced to the NBA Finals for just the second time in team history. Barkley won the Most Valuable Player Award, beating out Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.
Honorable Mention: Phoenix Suns’ “Backcourt 2000” featuring Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway, Matt Leinart’s debut as the Cardinals’ quarterback of the future, Larry Fitzgerald’s debut with the Cardinals in 2004, Max Domi’s rookie hype coming to fruition in 2015, Lute Olson taking over Wildcats basketball program after success at Iowa
Arizona Sports’ Adam Green contributed to this article
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