Even before the crowds arrived today for the Baltimore Orioles' last opener at Memorial Stadium, Willie Banks was polishing the railings for them and indulging in a little nostalgia.
"I'll miss this old place," the 11-year ballpark veteran from West Baltimore said today. "When you work around it so long, you get used to it, the look of the place, the smell of it.
"I can walk around this stadium and see lots of places where I cleaned it up or patched it up. It's like there's little bits of me all over the place."
There were jaded veterans and excited rookies all around the stadium as the season opener against the Chicago White Sox approached.
To one veteran who has put 20 years into the game, baseball means little more than a job and a paycheck come Friday.
"When you've seen as many games as I have, you get kinda bored by it all," the old pro was saying yesterday. Asked how many games he has, in fact, seen, he snapped, "Jesus! You figure it out. Twenty years' worth. One or two thousand. It's a lot, that's all I know."
Nearby, a rookie was to get game No. 1 under his belt today as the Orioles opened their 38th and final season at the stadium on 33rd Street. He was awe-struck at having made it to The Show.
"I love baseball," says the kid. "I can't imagine a better job than the one I have."
The veteran -- William "Jim" Webster -- is in his 20th year on the Orioles grounds crew. He's its senior member.
The rookie -- Ron Potter -- is beginning his first year on the eight-man team.
The groundskeepers touched up the field for today's game, smoothing out the infield dirt, tidying the warning tracks, trimming outfield grass. Webster and Potter, sitting in the ground crew's "dugout" in the left-field corner, bantered about baseball and the passion it does, or doesn't, inspire.
Webster, like any veteran, was quick to needle the kid.
"Let's see a year from now if you still love baseball," he said to Potter. The older man moved a toothpick back and forth across his mouth. "I guarantee, you'll have more than your fill after one season. These games and stuff, it's nothing but work to me."
"Wait a minute, you like football, don't you?" Potter asked him.
"Sure, I do, but if I were a football groundskeeper, I might get pretty sick of that, too," Webster answered. "Listen, do you think Cal Ripken would go out there to play shortstop every day if he wasn't getting some money for it? Some serious money, at that."
Webster went away. He had to fine-tune the pitcher's mound in the visitors' bullpen. That gave Potter a chance to wax euphoric about his good fortune at being an employee of a ball club he has followed for a lifetime.
He recalled last year's Opening Day, when he had to pay for a lower-deck seat about 30 rows back of home plate. For today's game -- and every home game this season -- he was to have a reserved spot among the ground crew's 10 seats in the left-field corner.
"There's no comparison between my seat for this year's Opening Day and last year's," says Potter, 25, a Cambridge native who previously worked as a groundskeeper at the U.S. Naval Academy's golf course. "This is a better seat because it's so close to the field, and it means I'm working on the Orioles' ground crew. I mean this, it's really a thrill."
Some of the 50 parking lot attendants were already showing up for duty at 6 a.m. today.
Ed McGilley, of Hamilton, in his fourth year as a lot attendant, said he'll miss the old stadium.
The lot owners at the new stadium will determine whom they'll hire, and that may or may not include the present Memorial Stadium crew, McGilley said.
Inside the ballpark today as game time approached, workmen were hanging giant yellow ribbons on the lower deck pillars. The grounds crew raked the infield and the barbecue pits behind the center field stands were being warmed up.
At a Quick Stop concession stand in Section 37 of the lower deck, manager Paul Mitchell and workers from the American Legion Morrell Park Post No. 137 were readying the burgers and hot dogs.
"Opening Day is different because so many more people are here, and the aggravation level is that much higher," Mitchell said. "But it's not such a big deal. You come in, you clean up, you count the inventory, you prepare the food, and then you sell it."
For some, the food becomes something to dread.
"I get pretty sick of hot dogs," said Denise Byczynski, of Dundalk, who was cleaning up a condiment stand on the lower deck before game time today. "You cook 'em all the time here, and sometime you eat 'em on the job because that's all the dinner you get when you're working. During the baseball season, I don't even want to see hot dogs in my house."
The first uniformed Oriole on the field today was coach Johnny Oates, who ventured out at 10 a.m. carrying a fungo bat. Soon after, coach Curt Motton was hitting practice grounders to Randy Milligan in the left field corner.
But to veteran usher R. "Scotty" Scott, the O's just aren't the same kind of people who played when he started 18 years ago. He misses the days when the players stayed with the team longer than they do in these free agent, billionaire boys club days.
"Ten, 15 years ago," he said, "the players would see me here and they'd always say, 'Hi, how ya doing?' Now they mostly walk on by. They don't stay here long enough anymore to get to know you. And I don't know them anymore unless I check their numbers on a program."