Opening Day: It's more than a game Orioles fans embrace 'their' season

April 05, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

There are two seasons in Baltimore:

When the Orioles play.

And when they don't.

That's why Opening Day in this city is a singular event. Christmas, New Year's and spring break rolled into one.

Other cities have the NBA -- we've got cable.

Others have the NHL -- we've got the Skipjacks, at least for a few more weeks.

And others have the NFL -- well, we've got an expansion committee.

But Baltimore has baseball, pure and simple, played on grass and dirt in a 1-year-old stadium that is an architectural marvel and a community jewel.

In New York, they celebrate the beginning of the season with Joe DiMaggio. In Cincinnati, they throw a downtown parade. And in Chicago, they come to pray at a temple of a ballpark named Wrigley Field.

Baltimore gives you a game and the president of the United States.

What more could you ask?

Today, the Orioles begin their 40th season in Baltimore when they meet the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards at 1:35 p.m.

President Clinton is expected to throw out the first ball.

Rick Sutcliffe, a bearded 36-year-old pitcher whose major-league career began when Gerald R. Ford was in the White House, will start for the Orioles.

Ex-Oriole Craig Lefferts (what, you were maybe expecting Nolan Ryan?) will pitch for Texas.

Cal Ripken will start his 1,736th straight game for the Orioles, while his brother, Bill, establishes a new career with the Rangers.

And Oriole Park will be sold out for the 60th consecutive game, tying the major-league record established by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991 and 1992.

Baseball, in case you haven't noticed, is very, very big in Baltimore.

"Right now, you could have a chicken fight at second base and it would be sold out," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.

The city will settle for one special game.

Baseball could use a day of wonder after an off-season of tragedy and turmoil.

In Cleveland, they mourn Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, killed in a boating accident.

In Cincinnati, they absorb the impact of the racially offensive remarks by Reds owner Marge Schott, which led to her one-year banishment.

And across the nation, baseball fans view with trepidation and skepticism a sport coming unhinged, from the forced resignation of commissioner Fay Vincent to skyrocketing player salaries to an impending labor showdown.

Even Baltimore, a bedrock, blue-collar baseball town, has been jolted by the mayhem that marred the national pastime.

Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs is in bankruptcy, and the team remains for sale -- its fate controlled by bankers, not ballplayers.

Today's game also will be the subject of a demonstration organized by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who is protesting the lack of minority participation in baseball's decision-making positions.

And yet, for all its faults and for all its frauds, the game endures and the fans keep pouring through the turnstiles in Baltimore.

The Orioles are likely to draw 3.5 million fans this year. The All-Star Game is coming to town this summer. And who knows, maybe a divisional race will break out in the fall as the Orioles build their hopes around a young pitching staff.

"Baseball is like family," Oates said. "The fans are very forgiving. When that first pitch is going to be thrown, there will be very few people in the stands thinking, 'We don't have a commissioner.' They'll think: 'What a beautiful ballpark. What a beautiful day.' "

Opening Day is about hope, renewal and making sure the president doesn't look ridiculous throwing out the first ball.

Chris Hoiles couldn't save George Bush from electoral defeat last year, but at least he grabbed the ex-commander-in-chief's wobbling curveball.

"That was ugly," Hoiles said. "That was the worst toss I think I've ever seen in my life. It was my first block of the year. Hopefully, Clinton can get it there this year."

The new president won't be the only rookie in Baltimore.

Sherman Obando of Changuinola, Panama, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder who has played inside a major-league stadium only once in his life, is now an Oriole.

"This is something you dream about, even in Panama," he said. "You work so hard for this and then, you're here."

Opening Day.

Listen to Sutcliffe, who will be starting his ninth major-league opener: "What makes Opening Day different are all the things that surround it and all the memories you take away from it."

Listen to Joseph J. DiBlasi, a Baltimore city councilman: "Opening Day puts winter in back of you. You know baseball is back. You smell the grass. The aroma of the park. You know you can do this for six months. You can watch baseball."

And listen to Mark Limburg, a 10-year-old from Chesapeake Beach: "Opening Day is Cal Ripken. Brady Anderson. And Mike Devereaux."

Opening Day.

It's players and memories and magic.

It's Baltimore celebrating the only game in town.

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