On Opening Day, brighter hopes

New-look Orioles surprise Martinez and Red Sox, 2-1

April 03, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles made a lot of their fresh new look this spring, hoping to convince disenchanted fans that the 2001 team would be fun to watch, even if it didn't figure to be headed for the playoffs.

It was understood that there would be a certain measure of delayed gratification involved, which made yesterday's 2-1 Opening Day victory over the Boston Red Sox all the sweeter.

The sellout crowd of 46,547 arrived at Camden Yards fully expecting to see a signature performance from dominating Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez but instead saw the new go-go Orioles scratch and claw for 11 innings and ultimately emerge with an unlikely uplifting win that featured just the right mix of youth and experience.

Free-agent bargain Pat Hentgen made it possible by carrying a four-hitter into the ninth inning and veteran outfielder Brady Anderson would deliver a game-winning hit in the 11th, but it was a three-hit performance by promising second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. that created both scoring opportunities and allowed the Orioles to cap the first day of the new season with an exuberant home plate celebration.

"I can't think of a better, more exciting Opening Day," said director of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "It was almost like a playoff game."

It was enough to make longtime fans resurrect the motto of the similarly under-respected 1989 Orioles.

"Why Not?"

There were eerie similarities. The Orioles were coming off a 107-loss season when they played host to the Red Sox for Opening Day in 1989, and the presence of Boston ace Roger Clemens on the mound made it an apparent mismatch. But the Orioles outlasted Clemens and scored an extra-inning victory that kicked off one of the most exciting Cinderella seasons in baseball. The team that everybody picked to finish last in the American League East stayed in the pennant race until the final weekend of the season.

"We see that parallel, because everyone has been rubbing it in our faces," joked Anderson. "I think it's a little bit different. The league's different. The stadium is different. It's perfectly acceptable to make that comparison. But to a player, it's a little strange to do that. The circumstances are a little different."

In other words, whatever the fans want to grab hold of to make the season more entertaining is just fine, but it's a little early to start raising expectations. Even the players realize that this is supposed to be a transition year.

"It's just one game. ... We want to build on it," Hairston said. "We just want to come out and play hard tomorrow."

For the record, there is no game today. The season resumes tomorrow night, when No. 2 starter Sydney Ponson takes the mound against Hideo Nomo, but Hairston can be forgiven for being eager to get back out there.

He singled off Martinez in his first at-bat of the regular season and led off the sixth inning with a double to set up the first Orioles run, which he scored on a bloop single by veteran shortstop Mike Bordick. Hairston stretched a seeming single into a double to lead off the 11th.

What a way to warm up the fans on a chilly April afternoon.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the young players play hard, as opposed to the rich guys who trotted to first base," said season ticket holder Bryon Forey, 53, who took time off from his job in Laurel to get a first look at this year's team. "Those guys didn't have the same game that was printed on their bubble gum cards."

The Orioles really aren't that young. They just played like it.

Third baseman Cal Ripken, who missed large chunks of the past two seasons with a back injury and missed much of the exhibition season with a broken rib, made three flashy defensive plays that belied his 40 years.

Hentgen, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract to replace Mike Mussina at the top of the rotation, looked more like the Cy Young pitcher he was in 1996 than the suspect, low-priced free agent he was perceived as over the winter. He gave up his only run on a fourth-inning home run to Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon.

The Orioles are promoting their new look any way they can, including putting pictures of the players on Opening Day tickets. But for some fans, even that presented a challenge.

"I looked at the ticket and I didn't know whose picture was on it," said Tom Molinaro of Silver Spring. "It's going to be a learning process."

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