`It can't get much better'

Baseball: With a sunny day, a warm tribute and an offensive outburst, the Orioles start their season with a 10-7 victory over Tampa Bay

April 06, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff

Big, bad Albert Belle may not be warm and cuddly, but that didn't stop the sellout crowd at Camden Yards from embracing him on his first official day in an Orioles uniform.

Belle hit a three-run homer in his regular-season debut and became the first Orioles player to receive a curtain call in 1999, as the Orioles scored a hard-fought, 10-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a cool, sun-splashed first day of baseball in Baltimore.

"That's nice," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "Opening Day is like the rebirth of major-league baseball every year, and our new superstar home run hitter hit a three-run home run. It can't get much better than that."

The standing ovation was the highlight of an emotional Opening Day that began with a heartwarming memorial to former Orioles coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr. and also included a big comeback performance by Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson, but the afternoon was not all home runs, high-fives and handshakes.

Third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. had to leave the game in the third inning with lower-back spasms and was treated at an area hospital. His early departure from the game was the only thing that put a damper on the Orioles' otherwise upbeat 1999 debut.

"It's a disappointment, especially for Cal," said Anderson, who had a home run and two singles to serve notice that he is back from an injury-hampered 1998 season. "You know that he must really be hurting, because you know how hard it is to get him out of the lineup."

The Ripken injury would have cast an even bigger shadow on yesterday's game if he had not decided during the final days of the 1998 season to end baseball's longest consecutive-games streak. Ripken played through a similar problem in 1997, but he might miss the rest of the series against the Devil Rays and possibly could go on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

"He's been great all spring," said winning pitcher Mike Mussina, "but the back is a tricky thing. I just hope it's not too bad."

The crowd of 46,733 clearly sensed there was something wrong when rookie Willis Otanez walked to the plate in place of Ripken in the third inning, but there would be plenty more intrigue and excitement before new closer Mike Timlin shut down a ninth-inning Devil Rays comeback attempt for his first Orioles save.

Mussina struggled to get through the fifth inning, but benefited from the double-digit offensive performance to get the victory. The newly reconfigured Orioles bullpen had some rocky moments, but newcomers Mike Fetters and Timlin came through when it counted.

There were some anxious moments before the game, too. The high-tech ticket-scanning system that the Orioles put into action for the '99 season did not live up to expectations, causing long lines at some turnstiles and forcing stadium ushers to go back to the traditional method of tearing the tickets until they can get the new system up to speed.

Inside the stadium, however, everything went according to plan, as fans, players and front-office personnel alike gave in to the anticipation of the new season.

"I've been looking at the ballpark out my window all winter," said new general manager Frank Wren. "It's extra special with all the activity going on. Opening Day is the closest thing to postseason for a lot of clubs. Hopefully, we'll have some special days at the end of the season, too."

The pre-game festivities were built around a video tribute to Ripken Sr., who died of lung cancer on March 25. The Orioles already are wearing sleeve patches bearing Ripken's No. 7, and the club also unveiled a No. 7 in the third base coaching box that will serve as a memorial throughout the season.

"You really can't do enough of a tribute in a couple of minutes for Cal Sr.," said Mussina. "It's nice that he's being remembered, but you can't give him his due in two minutes. He's done too much for this team and this city."

The first-ball ceremony was a closely held secret that remained under wraps until Orioles radio announcer Jim Hunter handed the ball to venerable radio and television voice Chuck Thompson, who is beginning his 50th year of broadcasting in Baltimore.

The national anthem was sung by Grammy-nominated pop group All-4-One and followed by a flyover of four A-10 Thunderbolt II jets from the Maryland Air National Guard.

Then it was time to turn the page.

The Orioles had suffered through a disappointing 1998 season in which they finished fourth in the American League East despite the largest payroll in major-league history.

The new season did not begin well. The Devil Rays scored a run in the first inning and another in the third, threatening to spoil the beautiful Baltimore afternoon, but the Orioles erupted for four runs in the third on the home runs by Anderson and Belle and gave the sellout crowd a lot to cheer about over the remaining six innings.

"I was real impressed with us offensively," said Mussina, who clearly felt fortunate to come away with a win.

"Ten runs on the first day, that's a real shot in the arm," he said. "Now, if we can get a little better performance from the starting rotation, we'll be OK."

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