Opening Day: This could be the start of something big

April 08, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- It may be the beginning of the end for Memorial Stadium, but today's regular-season opener between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox could be the start of something big for both teams.

The Orioles will unveil their new and improved offensive lineup, which rewrote the club record book this spring. The White Sox will try to improve on their surprising 1990 season, when they went from last place in the Western Division to the second-best record in the American League.

This is the time of year when expectation is everything, and there is nothing unrealistic about the great expectations of either club. The Orioles needed run-production help. They got Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans. The White Sox needed a productive leadoff hitter and a run-producing outfielder. They traded for Tim "Rock" Raines and Cory Snyder. Is this a possible playoff preview or what?

But if it is the season to be optimistic, Orioles management is playing it low-key. Perhaps last year was a lesson.

"I try to control my expectations," club president Larry Lucchino said. "It all comes down to injuries. We know we have improved our offensive capability, but it's a matter of how deep is our depth. That's the major consideration."

Injuries did the club in in 1990. The Orioles were in contention until early August, but lost club home-run leader Randy Milligan, batting leader Bill Ripken and pitchers Bob Milacki, Dave Johnson and Mark Williamson to injuries in the same three-week period.

The front office tried to address a number of weaknesses during the winter. The addition of Davis and Evans filled the run-production gap, and the trade for pitcher Jeff Robinson produced a starter surplus that could come in handy any day now.

Still, the spring raised as many questions as it answered, thanks to a string of nagging injuries that were just troublesome enough to keep the Orioles from getting overconfident.

Right-hander Ben McDonald, expected to be the workhorse of the staff this year, will spend at least the first six days of the season on the disabled list with a sore elbow. Stopper Gregg Olson, who set a club record with 37 saves last year, also has been hurting, though he apparently will be available for today's game.

That's only the half of it. Right-hander Bob Milacki pitched a solid five innings in yesterday's 6-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox in the spring finale at RFK Stadium, then was optioned to the Class AA Hagerstown Suns. Dave Johnson and Robinson also have struggled, leaving manager Frank Robinson with only two starters who were consistently effective this spring.

"I'm a little apprehensive about the pitching right now," Frank Robinson said. "I think the main thing is getting the pitchers healthy and getting them out there. I think there's still some work to be done. Some of them could sharpen their skills a little more."

For that reason, he considers the four open dates in the first 15 days of the regular season to be a break for his club because he can get by with three starters for much of April.

"I think it is [a break]," he said, "because if one of the three guys who start is not effective, you can make a change without fooling with your bullpen."

Who would have thought that the Opening Day starter would be left-hander Jeff Ballard? When was the last time a guy coming off a 2-11 season got to pitch with bunting hanging all over the place? But Ballard earned his place at the front of the rotation, and in doing so, became the standard-bearer for a team that is on the rebound, too.

"It's a different atmosphere this year," Ballard said. "In '89, we had a good year, but nobody knew what we were going to do. Last year, we had some expectations, but you still didn't know. This is the first year I've been here that we're really considered one of the teams to beat."

Ballard will face former Stanford teammate Jack McDowell in today's opener, which is scheduled to begin at 2:05 p.m. but is certain to be delayed by long pre-game ceremonies.

Vice President Dan Quayle will join 1954 Opening Day starters Bob Turley and Virgil Trucks in a triple first-ball ceremony. Retired groundskeeper Pat Santarone will officially pass the rake to replacement Paul Zwaska, who will, in turn, present Santarone with a "gold rake" in recognition of his 22 years of service to the club. Fans in attendance will receive miniature American flags, just in case they want to erupt in a spontaneous display of patriotism.

No doubt, the Orioles would rather do their flag-waving at the end of the season this year. Davis and Evans have brought instant credibility to a batting order that ranked 12th in runs last season. They will also provide protection for the rest of the big hitters in the Baltimore lineup.

"This year, we've got the offense," pitcher Dave Johnson said. "We've got guys who know they can play. I think our pitching will be strong, too, even though we're having a little trouble now.

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