1. George Bell, 1988
George Bell won the first American League Most Valuable Player Award in Blue Jays franchise history in 1987. So how did he follow it up in 1988? With the best Opening Day performance a Blue Jays player has ever had.
Bell had been named MVP following a career-high 47 home runs and 134 RBI. But the following spring, Manager Jimy Williams wanted Bell to switch from being a full-time outfielder to the club’s designated hitter. Bell balked at the idea, especially after the Blue Jays didn’t give him the money he was asking for. During a Spring Training game, Bell had refused to come out of the dugout to take his turn at-bat.
Bell and Williams weren’t on speaking terms as the Blue Jays prepared to take on the Kansas City Royals to begin the 1988 season. But on a warm, sunny Monday afternoon in Royals Stadium, he let his play do the talking. Bell took the first pitch he saw leading off the second inning over the left-field fence for a home run. In the fourth inning, he hit a 2-2 pitch from Royals starter Bret Saberhagen into the grass in centre for a two-run homer. He added a solo shot, also off Saberhagen, in the eighth, becoming the first player in MLB history with three home runs on Opening Day.
The Blue Jays won the game 5-3, with Saberhagen charged with three earned runs. The two-time Cy Young Award winner started 371 games in a career that spanned 16 years. Bell was the only player to ever hit three home runs off him in a game.
Bell’s relationship with Williams remained strained until the manager was fired 36 games into the 1989 season. Even 25 years later, the ordeal still bothered Bell. “I have nothing bad to say against Jimy. But sometimes when people touch your territory, you have to be a man,” he told the Toronto Sun upon his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013. “That’s what happened.”
His play on the field, moreover, didn’t match up to expectations. Bell hit just 21 home runs the rest of the season and saw a 23-homer decline from his MVP campaign. A year after leading the division by 3.5 games with a week left, only to lose their last seven, the Blue Jays never seriously contended in 1988. They trailed by as many as 9.5 games in September before winning nine of their last 10 games to finish two behind the Boston Red Sox.
Bell’s feat of three Opening Day home runs was later matched by Tuffy Rhodes in 1994, Dmitri Young in 2005, and Matt Davidson in 2018.