IT'S here, Dave -- this awaited, bittersweet day! Final opener at venerable Memorial Stadium, for us the scene of baseball memories so rich, so overflowing, one can hardly choose the most treasured. You, the world's most devoted Oriole fan, fly from Cleveland to continue our Opening Day tradition, and, while the game has its importance (first chance to see Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans in Bird uniforms), the knowledge that this is the last start at 33rd Street will never be absent.
Oh, the new Camden Yards park will be something of a gem, avoiding the sterility of recent Astroturf stadiums. Real grass, brick warehouse wall visible behind right field, modest capacity, seats close to the field -- all stir excitement for the '92 opening. But the building of memories must start afresh. There's no specs in the blueprints for them; they're not on sale with the price of admission to the new stadium.
So, Dave, we savor a special, nostalgic day. We'll look at the left side of the manicured infield and see not only Craig Worthington (or perhaps Leo Gomez) and the durable Cal Ripken Jr., but Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger as well. And in that lovely patch of center-field green, young Mike Devereaux will do just fine, but we'll envision the grace and speed of Paul Blair, flagging down almost every extra-base bid that was reachable and some that were not. With Davey Johnson and then Bobby Grich at second, we were so rock-solid down the middle that the Orioles consistently led the majors in 20-game winners.
Highlights by the hundreds: Frank Robinson's blast, flat out of the stadium off Louis Tiant, Dave McNally's World Series grand slam, John Lowenstein's fabled salute from the stretcher, our championships in '66 and again in '83, the nightmare start in '88, erased by the magic of the impossible run the very next year.
But in that great park to which we begin our farewell today, do you know, Dave, the day I felt most proud? Not of the team (although they deserved much praise that year), but of the city and its fans? Ironically, it was a day of bitter defeat, first Sunday in October '82.
Trailing Milwaukee by a bundle in early September, we made an autumn run and narrowed the gap to three with a closing four-game set scheduled at home against the leaders, the Brewers. After sweeping the Friday double-header, we hammered them again the next day. Dead even now -- and the Sunday matchup a classic. Jim Palmer, 15 and 4, loser in only one of his last 24 starts, vs. veteran Don Sutton. Two Hall of Fame-bound right-handers with 520 wins between them.
We took a 10-2 pounding, Robin Yount twice taking Palmer long. But, at season's mournful end, the packed house cheered its gratitude -- to the team for its thrilling charge, and especially to Weaver. Wave after wave after thunderous wave, 15 minutes' worth, no one leaving; curtain calls for the players and their gritty leader, who responded alternately with tears and stubby attempts to emulate Wild Bill Hagy. It taught me that though our heritage is winning baseball, the game, after all, is mostly about losing, as life sometimes is.
Enough reminiscing. I'll stay dry-eyed today, Dave, promise . . . but I give no guarantees come this season's closer.
Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.