Day was beautiful, until game began

John Steadman

April 09, 1991|By John Steadman

Play it again for old times sake. An Opening Day to remember. Store it in a file marked, "memorable memories." Much of what happened was an authentic reproduction of how it all began for the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and had more important things to do than attend a baseball game.

He was playing golf at Augusta National and making strokes of another kind, with a paint brush, as he put images of landscapes on canvas. He was represented in Baltimore on that historic occasion by Richard M. Nixon, the vice president and inveterate sports page reader.

Contrast it all with yesterday, 37 years after the entrance of the Orioles to Memorial Stadium. The present president, George Bush, was off in Texas, throwing out the ceremonial first ball while Dan Quayle, the vice president, who might have preferred to have been at Augusta National, was performing the honors in Baltimore.

All the Orioles and White Sox were in formation along the first and third base lines after being introduced by master of ceremonies Jon Miller. The opposing pitchers when the Orioles and White Sox met for the first time, Bob Turley and Virgil "Fire" Trucks, flanked the vice president in what was literally a throwback to glorious yesteryear.

Color guards and representatives of the armed forces were there and a display of state flags, beginning with Delaware, the original colony, flew within the outfield fences. Army Staff Sgt. Delores King Williams sang the national anthem, which made the opening of the season truly official.

The Orioles even had their retiring groundskeeper, Pat Santarone, pass the rake to Paul Zwaska, his successor. Eight employees -- Joe Hamper, Joe Codd, Hilary Bertling, Borgia Cohen, Ernie Salamone, John Sansone, Gerald Siegel and Charles Jasper -- all of whom were with the organization in 1954, were introduced. Yes, the Orioles thought of everything.

A crowd of 50,213, bathed in sunshine amid a temperature that reached 89 degrees, wanted so desperately to cheer they even applauded a wild pitch by Jack McDowell, who struck out 10 and otherwise knocked the bats out of the collective hands of the Orioles.

Randy Milligan, the Orioles' former first baseman now engaged in on-the-job training as a leftfielder, was a close-up witness to two Sammy Sosa home runs that were never in doubt. Defensively, Robin Ventura made plays reminiscent of the kind that sent Brooks Robinson to the Hall of Fame.

He covered the foul line with horizontal histrionics, reaching across his body to trap a shot by Milligan and appeared to throw him out but the umpire overruled the press box. Then he charged a trouble ball by Dwight Evans and didn't let the spin bother him as he picked it up bare-handed and retired the runner with a flick of the wrist. Vintage Robinson.

The same couldn't be said of the Orioles' third baseman, Craig Worthington, who made the proper play in cutting in front of shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. to field a slow bounder by Cory Snyder but couldn't hold on to the possible double-play ball in the second inning. This came at a most inopportune time because Sosa subsequently lost a 3-2 pitch for his first home run.

Jeff Ballard, the exact anthesis of McDowell, a fellow Stanford alumnus, was delivering an assortment of off-speed pitches and, after Sosa's home run, mesmerized 13 White Sox in order. Then came the uprising, after two were out, when the White Sox dispatched four well-hammered singles. Jose Bautista relieved but the sound of wood against ball didn't abate.

At this juncture, a press box humorist, one Morris Siegel, of the Washington Times, visited the television booth to question announcer Jim Palmer. "How could you not make this pitching staff?" he wanted to know. Meanwhile, Robinson, one of his broadcast partners, howled with laughter. It was a touch of Siegel wit; not intended to hurt but merely to jostle.

Mike Flanagan, who vanished one August day in 1987, returned amid applause to pitch the ninth inning for the Orioles and disposed of the White Sox 1-2-3. Everything about the 1991 opening was presented with style, professionalism and the proper mix of nostalgia.

Then, unfortunately, the Orioles had to play the game. It was a beautiful occasion. All but the ending. Result: White Sox 9, Orioles 1. Ugh.

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