Devereaux helps new ballpark catch up on missing memories

MIKE LITTWIN

April 07, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Can we talk truth here? Memorial Stadium was a mostly graceless hunk of concrete that would never make the cover of Architectural Digest. And yet, when the Orioles left the old stadium behind, strong men wept.

That's because ballparks -- real ballparks -- aren't simply sight lines or green seats or sweeping arches or ivy creeping soulfully over center-field walls.

A ballpark is only as good as its memories.

At new-old Camden Yards, where they set about evoking the past, the Orioles still have to make their own history to make it real. Opening Day was a start. It was a grand start. It will be a transcendent memory that won't require the softening of time to make it right.

Put these moments in your scrapbook: There was a cloudless sky on a seamless afternoon that might have been designed to set off the beauty of the place. There was Rick Sutcliffe, an old pro trying to reclaim his own past, pitching a five-hit shutout -- LTC and the sellout crowd on its feet as Sutcliffe punched out the last batter. There was a Bill Ripken squeeze play. There was a catch in distant center field where the asymmetrically dimensioned wall caught Mike Devereaux just as he caught the drive off Sandy Alomar's bat. Memories? Sutcliffe wanted to compare the catch to the one Willie Mays made on Vic Wertz.

No one can design instant tradition, any more than you can invent memory. But there was the fan who held up a sign that read: "They Built It And We Came." And there was Sutcliffe to look around the place and see that it was good.

"I saw Wrigley down the right-field line, and I saw old Comiskey down the left-field line," he said. "There are a lot of old friends packed into this place."

Though Devereaux is newer to the game than Sutcliffe, he understands the importance of making a memory. Afterward, he readily conceded he came into this game hoping to leave his mark. He did it with his show-stopping catch in the second inning in a park built to show off a center fielder.

"Remember the situation," Devereaux said. "We'd had a great spring. We had everyone in the city psyched up. We had a brand new ballpark. It's Opening Day. The president is here. Now, there was a man on second base, two outs, and there was the memory of all those bad starts last year. Put it all together, and this catch is No. 1 on my list."

It was an hour after the game, and the excitement of the day, the 2-0 win, the catch, all the moments, were still with him. He took care to absorb it all, even moments far removed from the field.

From his vantage point in center, Devereaux had a good look at the concrete-and-glass-layered skyscraper that dominates the skyline behind the ballpark. Perched atop this building at 250 W. Pratt were fans watching the game. This is a new tradition. It's a downtown-stadium tradition that so struck Devereaux that he said, "I wanted to stop and wave to them."

For all the Orioles, it was a game to put in freeze-frame. A year ago, when the new Comiskey opened in Chicago, the White Sox lost, 16-0. Coming off 95 losses, the Orioles were hoping to build something in addition to a new ballpark. They wanted a new starting place.

Chris Hoiles had the first RBI, a double in the gap to score Sam Horn. It was not an ordinary run batted in.

"It's in the record books as the first one," Hoiles said. "My name is going to be there forever. It's something I can talk about forever. I'll tell you, I'm excited."

That's because the game was not just a game. It was an introduction. Face facts, it takes more than a ribbon-cutting and a parade to make something yours. For a while, the stadium is going to feel too new, like it belongs to someone else, as if you're in somebody's living room and you have to be careful not to break anything.

Until the day when the beauty of the ballpark feels natural and you can safely complain about the beer costing too much or wonder why anyone would want to watch a game from a sky box, you'll still feel like a visitor.

That will change. Someday, the ballpark will feel like home. What will this first game mean then? That depends. Maybe this game is the start of something. Maybe a new-old Sutcliffe, who hadn't pitched a shutout since mid-1989, has emerged whole to lead the Orioles and their young pitching staff to a new day. Or it could be that this is simply the extension of a springtime fantasy in which the Orioles pitchers recall the team's celebrated past.

But, whatever happens, this is a game worth holding onto. Sutcliffe had his own plan to store away the day.

"I'm going to go down to the bay and sit and just stare out at the water," he said. "It's going to be a great memory."

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