For O's fans, hope's eternal

Rite of spring goes on road

Orioles fans to miss first crack of the bat as team opens away for first time since '78

April 02, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

CLARIFICATION

An article Monday said that the Orioles were to "officially launch their season someplace other than Baltimore for the first time since April 7, 1978." The team did open its season on the road in 1980, 1990, and 1995, but in each case it was because labor disruptions had delayed the start of the Major League schedule.

Tony Coliano is a "warm-weather guy," a lifelong Orioles fan and an eternal optimist when it comes to Baltimore sports, all of which usually adds up to a single, irrepressible feeling this time of year. With spring in the air, the firefighter from Bel Air is aching for Opening Day - that lone moment on the baseball calendar when he knows "anything can still happen."

This year, though, the annual ritual is bringing O's fans unaccustomed pangs.

A longtime season-ticket holder, Coliano hasn't missed an Opening Day in 10 years, but during the off-season, when he got his Orioles schedule for 2007, he spotted something alarming. For the first time in nearly three decades, Major League Baseball would have his favorite team open its season on the road.

When the O's take the field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis tonight, they'll officially launch their season someplace other than Baltimore for the first time since April 7, 1978.

"It's still a special time of year because of all the anticipation," said Coliano, 34, who plans to take in the game on a big-screen television at Looney's Pub North in Bel Air. But opening away from home "does take something away from the experience. ... It's kind of a disappointment."

For a variety of reasons, Baltimore has long enjoyed an exemption from one of baseball's scheduling rules of thumb. Generally speaking, almost every team opens its season at home one year and on the road the next, according to Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball's senior vice president for club relations and scheduling. The most notable exception has been the Cincinnati Reds, Major League Baseball's first officially recognized franchise, which was granted the privilege of playing host to nearly every inaugural game of the big-league season from 1876 through 1989. (In 1877 and 1966, rain forced the team to open on the road.)

The Orioles assumed a similar position after 1971, the year the Washington Senators left the nation's capital to become the Texas Rangers. In the years that followed, the Orioles intermittently started the season at home, but from 1979 on, it became tradition.

For the previous six decades, weather permitting, Washington played host to the "Presidential Opener," the first American League game of the year. Starting with the 1910 season opener, when William Howard Taft became the first president to throw an Opening Day first pitch, the sport scheduled that contest in the capital so the commander in chief could attend.

Once the Senators left, Charm City became Washington's stand-in. The O's "pretty much inherited the traditional AL opener, mainly due to its proximity" to Washington, Feeney said.

Jim Henneman, longtime baseball writer for the News-American and The Evening Sun, remembers the spring training in the mid-1970s when Hank Peters, then the general manager, sounded out the idea of asking baseball officials if they'd let Baltimore have the league opener every year.

That way, Henneman said, the president would always have a nearby ballpark in which to throw out the season's first ball, and Oriole players would get a little bonus: After six weeks of spring training, they could come home and get settled in rather than embark on another trip.

The arrangement was never made formal, Henneman believed, because baseball hoped eventually to establish another Washington team. The birth of the Nationals in 2005 effectively put Baltimore on notice that its ride of home openers was coming to an end.

This year, the commissioner's office decided to grant Washington its first home Opening Day since 1971. The Nationals begin their season today with a 1:05 game against the Florida Marlins. (President Bush, who has thrown out Opening Day first pitches in four ballparks, will miss the event.)

Plans for the coming years are not final, but it seems clear that neither Baltimore nor Washington will enjoy exclusive rights to the Presidential Opener.

"We'll probably alternate between the cities," Feeney said.

Alternating might be fair, but for three decades, Baltimore fans got used to the pleasure of inaugurating each American League season here. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and lifelong O's fan who sees 70 games a year, has cherished that opportunity for 20 years.

"It's wonderful to go to the park and see a game with a clean slate," he said. "It's the end of winter, the start of a season, a new beginning. As they say, everybody's in first place; nobody's in last place."

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