Let's play ball! Opening Day is here

April 08, 1991|By Bill Glauber

You say Opening Day is a holiday that combines the sweetness of Christmas morning and the optimism of New Year's Day, a celebration of all that is good with our pastoral game, a starting point of time that goes beyond the man-made confines of clocks or calendars.

I say it's just a baseball game.

You say Memorial Stadium is a shining emerald, a place of natural beauty, a park lush with grass, a storehouse for the collective memory of a city that clings proudly to its blue-collar roots.

I say it's a fine place.

You are the romantic. I am the realist. This is Opening Day 1991.

For the 38th and final time, the Baltimore Orioles will celebrate their home opener at Memorial Stadium. The gates will open at 12:05 p.m. The game against the Chicago White Sox will begin at 2:05 p.m.

Vice President Dan Quayle, along with Bob Turley and Virgil Trucks, the two starting pitchers in the first game played at Memorial Stadium on April 15, 1954, will throw out ceremonial first balls. A year from now, another ceremony and another Opening Day will be celebrated in a back-to-the-future ballpark at Camden Yards.

Why is all this important? Why will a city grind to a standstill on a weekday afternoon, thousands taking an early and prolonged lunch hour to play hooky at the ballpark, thousands more stuck in classrooms or offices, catching glimpses of the game on television or listening to snatches of play-by-play on radio?

You say the city is stretching its limbs after a long winter. I say the city is crawling like a creature of habit to the stadium on 33rd Street. Somewhere between the visions of the romantic and realist is a clearer picture of Opening Day.

Look behind a pillar in the lower deck of the stadium today, and you'll find James Bolt, a 20-year-old roofer from Essex. To him, going to the final Opening Day at Memorial Stadium "is like having a ticket to Elvis' last concert."

"Hey, I'd stand outside the stadium and listen to the crowd if I had to," he said.

Look in the neighborhood beyond the outfield walls. Ednor Gardens. Rows of neat, compact homes, Baltimore's vision of itself brought to brilliant life. Years ago, the neighborhood was at war with an unruly group of fans. Park in a driveway, lose a distributor cap. Litter a yard, get a punch in the face. Tit for tat. The police intervened, drew up a parking plan, bolstered patrols and created a cease-fire.

"Opening Day is balloons and gossip and cars and picnics," said Cecilia Firstenberg, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, who moved into Ednor Gardens six years ago.

"It's like having a carnival move into your back yard -- for six months. People work their schedules around the games. Sometimes, we still get beer cans stuffed inside the azaleas. But we recycle, so that's fine."

Opening Day is work. Lots of it. Not just for the vendors hustling the hot dogs, or for the ushers finding seats for 50,000, or for the kids parking cars for 10 bucks a shot in their yard, or their neighbor's yard.

Maj. Regis Raffensberger, a 30-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, has a special job today, helping coordinate security for Vice President Quayle. Previously, he supervised the city'sforce when Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush showed up at the ballpark.

"Opening Day isn't a baseball crowd," the major said. "It's for amateurs. The die-hards will start coming out the third or fourth day."

The 16-hour days begin for Paul Zwaska, the head groundskeeper who replaced the recently retired Pat Santarone. the way, can anyone even name a groundskeeper in another city?)

"With Opening Day, everyone is coming out from their winter humdrum," Zwaska said. "They've had cabin fever for the past four, five months. This is their way of breaking into the rite of spring. It's the first game of the season. Everyone wants to see what the ballclub is like.

"For me, Opening Day means I have to watch the weather. We're like farmers. We live and die with the weather."

Look in the stands for the wives of the players. Their lives change, too. They have to juggle kids and work, just like anyone else. They have to deal with the public successes and failures of their husbands, who are home for a week, then gone for a week.

Fortunately for Renee Milligan, whose husband, Randy, is the Orioles' new starting left fielder, the opener falls on a day when she doesn't have any classes at the University of Baltimore Law School.

"This opener is going to be a big deal for us," she said. "Randy is going to be playing his first game ever in left field at Memorial Stadium. Every time the ball is hit, I'll be nervous. But my husband is a natural. He'll handle it."

Look in the press box, and listen to the man who provides the oral history of the Orioles, broadcaster Jon Miller. Rarely does he wax poetic about baseball, instead viewing and discussing the game in clear, concise phrases. But on this day, he will greet one and all with a familiar phrase: "Happy New Year."

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