O's warm to the occasion

Celebration: At chilly Camden Yards, the old stars come out to open the team's 50th-anniversary season, and the new stars shine.

Opening Night

April 05, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles and their fans would love to believe that a new era was born at Camden Yards last night.

The new manager won his first game. The new catcher hit his first home run. The new star-studded lineup poked and prodded Boston Red Sox superstar Pedro Martinez just enough to carry prodigal pitching ace Sidney Ponson to a 7-2 victory before a sellout crowd of 47,683 and a national television audience.

It's early, of course, but a city can dream.

The franchise spent $123 million to bring in four big-name free agents over the winter and hired former New York Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli to run the show. The dawn of Maz-ball featured a debut home run for All-Star catcher Javy Lopez, a solid - if abbreviated - start by Ponson and two-hit performances by second-time Oriole Rafael Palmeiro and former American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada.

Whether or not this is the year the Orioles finally emerge from a six-year slump to re-establish themselves as a presence in the American League East, they didn't waste any time giving Baltimore a taste of what an exciting season might feel like.

"It was exciting," said Palmeiro, who helped lead the Orioles to the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997. "This is the way it used to be."

Mazzilli was brought in to instill a new attitude in the Orioles clubhouse, which has been redecorated with reminders of the franchise's successful past and the catch phrase for 2004: "Need to find a way!"

And for one impressive night at least, the Orioles did just that against a team that is supposed to finish well ahead of them.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Red Sox," Mazzilli said. "You respect every team you play, whether it's the Red Sox or anybody else, but this team doesn't fear anyone. That's the difference."

The New York Yankees-Red Sox rivalry might be the most storied in baseball, but the Red Sox-Orioles opener at Oriole Park is becoming an interesting April tradition.

Last year's opener was delayed by a tornado-like snow shower and last night's game was played in an icy chill - 43 degrees at first pitch, and, in later innings, the wind chill made temperatures feel like the low 30s.

What a way to introduce Tejada to Baltimore after growing up in the sunny Dominican Republic and spending the first six years of his major-league career in California.

"I'm doing the best thing that I could possibly do in my life," said Tejada before the game, "so nothing is going to bother me."

The cold didn't bother Lopez, either. He homered on the first pitch of his first Orioles at-bat and added a single and a two-run double later in the game.

"I couldn't ask for anything better," Lopez said. "I guess that home run relieved all the tension of trying to show Baltimore my best."

Tejada was the first cornerstone of the Orioles' offseason rebuilding effort. He was soon followed by Lopez and Palmeiro, who singled off Martinez in his first at-bat last night and drove home a big run off former Oriole Mike Timlin in the seventh.

"This feels great," Tejada said. "Everybody wants to be in the situation we're in now - Opening Night, ESPN."

The Orioles, as part of their 50th anniversary celebration, melded the new with the old during a multiple first-pitch ceremony that featured some of the greatest stars of the past passing the symbolic torch to the new stars of 2004.

Earl Weaver, the greatest manager in Orioles history, threw a very meaningful first ball to Mazzilli. Cal Ripken hooked up with Tejada. Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Rick Dempsey and baseball commissioner Bud Selig also took part.

Ponson threw the first real pitch at 8:08 p.m. and - perhaps appropriately - Tejada scooped up a ground ball by Red Sox leadoff man Johnny Damon and threw to Palmeiro for the first out of the season.

If the first game of the club's new era was served well-chilled, fans didn't seem to mind. They were warmed by the prospect of a much-improved team after six straight losing seasons.

"It gives you hope that this is going to be a good year," said structural engineer Ken Dill of Baltimore. "You get a sense that they are headed in the right direction. I don't think they are done. There might be some holes in the pitching, and it might take a couple of years, but you can't discount the Orioles."

The game-time temperature was the lowest for an Orioles opener since the same 43 degrees was recorded in 1987. The steady breeze made it feel much colder, but that didn't prevent two groups of protesters from taking advantage of the Opening Night media crush.

About 120 members of the group Children First gathered across Russell Street from the stadium and, after several speeches, marched up Russell toward Pratt Street at 6 p.m. The group was trying to draw attention to the troubled state of Baltimore schools, Maryland's juvenile justice system and the plight of local youth.

"With all the celebration of the ballgame, someone has to notice that people are dissatisfied with the condition of our children," said community activist Tyrone Powers.

The marchers gathered in the intersection of Pratt and Paca streets, blocking traffic and chanting. Within moments, police arrested the six protesters who sat down in the road and loaded them into a van.

Thirty minutes later, a group of three dozen marchers headed down Eutaw Street toward the ballpark to protest the wages paid to the day laborers, typically homeless men, who clean the ballpark after games. Led by a group called United Workers Association, the workers said they are paid minimum wage and often not paid for all the hours they put in.

Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.

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