In new year's warm glow, Orioles enjoy a cold one

April 05, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

EXCELLENT SHOW, fellas. Excellent because most of the really good fun and folly between the Orioles and Red Sox took place before the third inning of the stone-cold season opener.

That included Lee Mazzilli rubbing Sidney Ponson's bald head as Ponson sat at his locker, pulling on his sanitary socks, three hours before the first pitch.

"Good luck," the rookie manager told his starter.

Ponson smiled, looking as large and serene as Buddha. (Does Buddha drink light beer?) Mazzilli went off to find the spot on the bench closest to the space heater. The man had his priorities.

Nearby, Larry Bigbie obliged early-arriving Camden Yards fans by autographing a few baseballs - and a yellow rubber duck.

"Where do you want me to sign?" Bigbie asked the duck owner.

No wonder the Orioles are so high on this guy.

Two hours, 45 minutes before the first pitch, Brian Roberts and Luis Matos stepped into the dugout to judge how cold it was going to get after this 8:05 April night start.

"Baby oil," Matos said. "You rub it all over your skin, then put on your long johns. It keeps you warm."

A major leaguer's trick to mitigate the elements?

"It's a minor league trick. You can use Vaseline, too. In Ottawa, this kind of weather is like summer," Roberts said. "Knock on wood, we're not going back there."

You mean we weren't in Ottawa last night?

No, and not Helsinki, either. The fireworks that were shot off behind center field illuminated the Inner Harbor, meaning it was baseball season again in Baltimore.

The blue lights on the Bromo Seltzer Tower glowed in the night sky.

Blue like the lips of spectators in the upper deck, where the wind was nastier than anything Pedro Martinez could muster.

Ceremony is the best part of Opening Day, or Opening Night, and there was the Oriole Bird, feathers fluffed. He shimmied down the orange carpet, leading a parade of players out to greet the applause of 47,683 spectators.

Meanwhile, at the mound, ceremonial first pitches from some of the Oriole greats gave the night some extra depth, history, pride.

Rick Dempsey, Brooks Robinson, Mike Flanagan, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken reminded the sellout crowd - and more important, the national TV audience - that other than the past six years, there were many times during the past 50 seasons that the Orioles ruled.

Were those goose bumps from nostalgia?

Or goose bumps from wind chill?

Happy anniversary, O's. Now pass the fleece mittens.

Allegedly, last night's North American Opening Day, which was really Opening Night thanks to the ubiquitous ESPN, was better than baseball's first official Opening Day, which was really dawn, considering the 5 a.m. first pitch at the Tokyo Dome last Tuesday.

That gives us two openers in time slots completely antithetical to the game of baseball, where gripping a slick baseball in 43-degree weather (not counting wind chill) makes it tough on those Caribbean hurlers like Ponson and Martinez. You can't stand in the way of progress - or increased TV revenues, or global marketing.

At least the Orioles had the good sense of maximizing the early adrenaline of the proceedings. Ponson found out how much easier it might be this season to record outs when he earned a strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double play to end the second inning.

Javy Lopez has the arm - and the bat - that adds a dimension so sorely lacking for this club during the past six seasons. After throwing out Gabe Kapler to end the top of the second inning, Lopez took a high, first-pitch, four-seam fastball from Martinez and cranked it far over the wall down the left-field line.

Forty-three homers last year for Atlanta. Forty-two to go to tie the mark with his new club.

Memo to Detroit Tigers: Pudge who?

Poor Geronimo Gil, last year's Opening Day starting catcher. The bar had been raised with the free-agent additions. Does that make it more or less painful, those last six seasons when the minor league Orioles attempted to keep pace in the American League East arms race?

It's hard to know whether to be thankful we have been delivered from that baseball evil or to look back and wonder how any Baltimore baseball fan could have been so patient, so loyal - really believing that all those talent-starved squads could have garnered any sustained interest or credibility.

No wonder Mike Hargrove was so beaten down his final season or two. And no wonder the Orioles had to change managers. Hargrove might have been propelled into a delirious state, watching the instant and amazing upgrade at catcher and shortstop.

One game into the season and the difference is formidable; the ripple effect down the Orioles' lineup noticeable. After Lopez's bases-empty homer to start the second, Jay Gibbons singled, prompting Martinez to disintegrate. The Boston ace then drilled David Segui in the back, dropping the 39-year old, surgically repaired designated hitter to the dirt. But Segui was OK, and it was worth it.

The Orioles scored two more runs in the second before the game slowed under the coagulating cold, at least until the seventh, when Lopez struck again with a long fly into the gap that led to a three-run Orioles rally.

By then, though, satisfied Orioles fans with any sense - or no feeling left in their toes - had headed for exits. They wanted to clear out before it snowed, or before the final out of the 7-2 Orioles win was recorded, which was a little too close to 5 a.m. for most sane people to find entertaining.

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