For Orioles, memories won't melt away

April 01, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

IT HAD TO be a first. Opening Day played inside a snow globe.

Then again, you know the old baseball adage: You see something new every day.

Or, in the case of the Orioles' 6-5, 13-inning win over Cleveland in yesterday's season opener, you don't see anything at all - at least not for the two Rodrigo Lopez pitches it took for an arctic squall to kick up inside Camden Yards, rendering the place fit only for penguins.

It was the top of the third inning, well after the pomp and circumstance and solemnity of the Opening Day ceremony had passed. (Dave McNally and Steve Bechler were the two deceased Orioles remembered, along with the servicemen and women in Iraq.)

The time was 4:01 p.m. on what was billed as an annual rite of spring. Then again, the official game-time temperature was billed as 48 degrees - off only by about a dozen.

Cleveland was threatening only less than the sky.

"I got up [to motion to the umpires about the visibility], but at that point it was only snowing heavy in left field and light in right. The next second, it was snowing heavy in right and light in left, so I sat back down. I wish I had stayed up," said Mike Hargrove, who found out yesterday that managing the Orioles this season also will require mastery of Doppler radar.

Have you ever been inside a snow globe - one of those little glass orbs filled with chunky white flakes? You shake it and shake it, and in an instant, the world is a wintry blur.

Tough place to play a ballgame.

Jay Gibbons had never been inside a snow globe, not before yesterday anyway. Now the Orioles' right fielder is an expert. He can tell you all about how it feels to be standing out by the wall in right, blind as a bat to everything except white snowflakes the size of silver dollars floating onto his nose and eyelashes.

The only things missing for this Opening Day were Christmas carols, a Salvation Army Santa and Rudolph, whose red nose might have lit the way for some kind of Winter Olympics play.

Apparently, Gibbons was supposed to make a play (what, on a luge?) because first base umpire Chuck Meriwether ruled that the ball hit down the first base line by Ellis Burks had indeed dropped fair.

The reason this is worth a Dickensian description?

Because Burks' "snow ball" turned out to be an RBI single that put Cleveland up 2-1, which was really a bum call since first baseman Jeff Conine and second baseman Jerry Hairston went from trying to run down the ghost ball to covering their heads, hoping not to get beaned by the goodness-knows-where ball.

"I never saw it. I couldn't even see the play at the plate. [The umpire] told me he never saw the ball. He kind of made a guess," Gibbons said, adding: "I don't even know how Burks hit that ball."

If a ball is hit into a snow squall and no one sees it land, is it possible this could be the deciding factor in a game that the Orioles - riding that 12-game losing streak from last September - really, really wanted to win?

Thank goodness, no.

"It was the wrong call. The ball was slicing right off [Burks' bat] and then when it landed in front of Jay, it was slicing left. The only way it could change direction like that was for it to hit the rail or wall" in foul territory, Hargrove said.

Wrong call or not, the Orioles would not be done in by the snow, nor the Indians, nor frostbite. Instead, they rallied not once (Marty Cordova's two-run homer to tie it in the eighth), not twice (a passed ball scored Gary Matthews from third to tie it again in the 12th), but three times to start 2003 with an inspired win.

"This is a big win for us. It was invigorating," said Matthews, whose line-drive single to center flew over Milton Bradley's head to score the game-winning run in the 13th inning.

Given the way the Orioles trudged off into winter, a 13-minute snow delay and a 13-inning game could have presented far too many weird omens for the team to overcome.

This may be a new season, but the team - despite a lack of serious upgrades over last year's squad - is eager to get back to the way it performed before Aug. 23, 2002. That was the day the Orioles were .500 and Matthews went out of the lineup with an injury, setting the stage for the 4-32 skid that begged - all winter - to be halted.

On Day One, the Orioles took care of the 12-loss streak they carried over. Best of all, they did it in one of the weirdest games any player, coach or fan had ever witnessed. The Orioles persevered like postmen: Not snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night ...

Hargrove was proud, and he had a right to be. This was a game that was won not on physical ability - although Jorge Julio kept things tight for an Orioles bullpen that figures to decide a lot of games - but on mental toughness.

The conditions were such that Gibbons said he was actually praying for Matthews to get that game-winning hit.

"I feel bad for Cleveland," Gibbons said. "But not that bad. That `snow ball' was tough on Rodrigo [who did not get a decision] Maybe there's some justice there."

Justice, maybe.

Memories, definitely.

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