An Opening Day to remember? Forget about it


April 09, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Opening Day is, of course, a party, but the trouble is that it's got about a 50-50 chance of being a flop, even with a guest list that includes a vice president, half the Cabinet and enough Secret Service boys in bad suits to start their own Elks Lodge.

You can plan the honor guards and the flags and, with a tribute to the soldiers who didn't return, plant a lump in about 50,000 throats. You can even, if you're lucky, get a perfect day for baseball. But when it's 8-1 in the sixth inning and the home team is losing, the hot dogs don't go down so easily and you start thinking, hey, if it's 89 degrees in April the ozone layer must really be shot.

You've been to this kind of party before. They run out of beer about 9, and, when you sit down to dinner, you find yourself next to a guy who just laid in a new lawn and really wants to talk about it.

Among the things that didn't go right yesterday in the final Memorial Stadium opener: Sam Horn did not hit two three-run homers, or even one. Dan Quayle's helicopter held up traffic, and his ceremonial first pitch was high and inside. (Who's older, by the way, Quayle or Jim Palmer, and do you think Quayle can come back next year or might it be General Schwarzkopf?) Jeff Ballard pitched great, except for a three-run homer in the second and a barrage of base hits in the sixth. J.J. Bautista, who relieved him, got nobody out. There were minor-league umpires and a major-league start from Chicago's Jack McDowell, who gave the Orioles four hits while striking out 10.

None of this would matter if it happened tomorrow or, say, any day in June. It mattered because this is the game people have been waiting for since October, if just for the chance to see John Sununu up close again.

It matters enough that one TV guy asked manager Frank Robinson if he was worried about getting his team up in time for the next game after such a disappointing setback. (The answer was a semi-amused no.)

That's what happens on Opening Day, where you kill to get a ticket, fight traffic to get into the stadium and wait in long lines for an overpriced bag of peanuts. There is the chance for a letdown.

"Opening Day," said Mike Flanagan, who looked great in one inning of relief and who got probably the biggest hand from the crowd, "is the closest thing to playing in the World Series. It's the next-best thing."

It is. That's the way Ballard saw it, too.

"Is it different?" Ballard said. "You mean because you warm up for a 2:05 game that doesn't start until 2:20? Or because you come out on the field on a red carpet? Or because the vice president is standing next to you in the dugout? Yeah, it's a little different.

"You're excited and the crowd wants so much to cheer. You throw the first pitch for a strike, and it's a big 'rah.' Now, you're really pumped. You get the first out, and it's a bigger 'rah.' When the first inning is over, you feel relieved, and now you can settle back into the ballgame."

Of course, this wasn't the kind to settle back into very comfortably.

"I wanted it to be like '89, when it was close all the way and then Cal hits a homer in the ninth to win it," Ballard said.

These things do happen. Even yesterday, there was Glenn Davis, in his first at-bat as an Oriole, slamming an RBI double to give the club a 1-0 lead. I glanced over at owner Eli Jacobs' box -- he was chatting quite animatedly with Marilyn Quayle, although probably not about Kitty Kelley's new book -- and wondered when Jacobs might start thinking about the serious business of getting Davis into a long-term contract.

"I had butterflies for about five innings," Davis said.

Randy Milligan, who was flawless in his Memorial Stadium debut in left field, said he had butterflies for most of the game.

"The fans," he said, "really encouraged me. There was one guy I remember distinctly. He was saying, 'You can do it. It's not that bad. It's a piece of cake. It's a cakewalk.' I think he had me believing it for a while."

The return of Flanagan, who pitched the ninth inning, could have been a great story if it hadn't been 9-1 at the time. He said he kept flashing back to the openers here when he was the starting pitcher.

There are a lot of memories here, but this is the last Opening Day memory that Memorial Stadium gets to have, since the team moves next season to a brand-new, sky-box-filled, closer-to-the-D.C-suburbs stadium. The good news for the Orioles is that, 1988 notwithstanding, it has to get better from here.

The Orioles, in promoting the Memorial Stadium farewell, are calling this a season to remember. But they started it with a game to forget. I'm sure the Orioles are willing to if you are.

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