'All comes down to one day' for Orioles Opener threatened by expected rain

April 01, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken stayed after school the other day. The Florida sun brought sweat rolling down his face, but he stayed out there after the last out of the Orioles' last exhibition game in Fort Lauderdale and took ground ball after ground ball, as if he had something left to prove.

All in preparation for today, because -- even now, in the wake of 2,131 -- Opening Day is what the Iron Man is all about.

"To me, it's almost like the Super Bowl," Ripken said. "I know it doesn't decide a championship, but all of the off-season buildup comes down to one day. This is what you're working all spring toward. That makes it more exciting. This is my 15th Opening Day, and that doesn't diminish the importance of it for me at all."

The only thing that could put a damper on the occasion is the possibility of damp weather. The forecast calls for rain and cold temperatures, but there is a day off tomorrow in case the game has to be rescheduled.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jose Marrero said rain is "a 100 percent probability. A soaking rain is coming in. It'll be a rough day for the Orioles. But they can play Tuesday. It'll be cool, clear and windy, with temps in the upper 40s."

Whatever the day, nowhere will the excitement be more palpable than in Baltimore, where the Orioles have gone 12 seasons without a playoff appearance. The arrival of the NFL team now known as the Baltimore Ravens may have captured the imagination of a city full of long-frustrated football fans, but this is still a baseball town until it is proved otherwise.

The Orioles will unveil a vastly improved team in today's sold-out opener at 3: 05 p.m. against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards. The organization has been upgraded from top to bottom, from the addition of dynamic general manager Pat Gillick and proven manager Davey Johnson to the arrival of superstar Roberto Alomar and a long list of high-quality players. This might be the team to beat in the American League East. When was the last time anyone could say that without being considered delusional?

"It's exciting for me," said Johnson, who spent seven Opening Days in an Orioles uniform during his playing career, "but it's been like that ever since I was named manager."

The anticipation has been building for weeks, and here are a few more reasons:

President Clinton will throw out the first ball and -- if all goes well -- he'll be the only person to leave Camden Yards with a sore shoulder all year. If the Orioles pitching staff stays healthy, Clinton could get another big photo opportunity here in October.

Pitching ace Mike Mussina will make his '96 debut. He finished fifth in the voting for the Cy Young Award in 1995 and is expected to be a strong candidate for that honor this season.

The Orioles will go on to play all 162 regular-season games, not 144, like last year, or 112, as in 1994. The term lockout will apply only to fans who didn't buy advance tickets for today's game.

Ripken is scheduled to break Sachio Kinugasa's world record of 2,215 consecutive games played June 13 in Kansas City. The Royals will recognize the accomplishment, but the festivities will not be anything like what happened at Oriole Park on Sept. 6.

Ken Griffey will have such a great year that Congress will waive the constitutional age requirement and allow him to run for president after the season. If he wins, America will be renamed Niketown.

So the Griffey thing is a stretch, but who can help getting a little giddy at the prospect of a full season with real statistical significance and almost no chance of another stupid labor trick?

"That's what you're supposed to have," said Ripken, whose record chase was held up twice by baseball's long-running labor dispute. "The championship will be determined over a full season. It feels normal again."

The labor dispute that altered the 1994 and '95 seasons is not over. It has just gone underground. The owners and players realized after labor problems wiped out the 1994 World Series and delayed the start of the 1995 season that they could no longer afford to carry out their feud in public. Negotiations have resumed behind the scenes, and there is room for optimism that a collective bargaining agreement will be struck without further damage to the image of the sport.

"I think everybody in baseball is glad of that," Johnson said. "They seem like they might get something resolved."

The resilience of the game was illustrated last fall, when the fans responded to the novelty of the new, three-tiered playoff format. The Cleveland Indians reached the postseason for the first time in 41 years, and the Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies got there for the first time ever. And the wild-card round that pitted the Mariners against the New York Yankees produced the most exciting series of the postseason.

This season could hold even more intrigue. The American League East race features three teams with a chance to reach the World Series, most notably the retooled club that will take the field against Kansas City today. Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos committed to one of the highest payrolls in the game -- nearly $50 million -- hoping to put the team over the top in the East and bring the World Series to Baltimore for the first time since 1983.

The well-heeled Yankees and defending division champion Boston Red Sox might have something to say about that before the 1996 season is over, but not today. The Orioles are new and improved, and the prospects for postseason play have not been better in a long, long time.

Play ball.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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