So-so Debut Doesn't Dampen Thrill

Catching Prospect Wieters Arrives To Cheers, Fond Hopes

May 30, 2009|By Dan Connolly and Mike Klingaman | Dan Connolly and Mike Klingaman,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

It took one pitch, just one play, for the soggy but spirited crowd at Camden Yards to have a reason Friday night to cheer super-prospect Matt Wieters.

The fans didn't need much of a reason, not after 11 losing seasons often devoid of bright spots or inspiring young talent.

So when Wieters, the fifth overall pick in baseball's 2007 amateur draft and reigning Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, walked to the bullpen for pre-game warm-ups before his major league debut, the Orioles fans who braved thunderstorms and arrived early stood and clapped.

They roared as the 23-year-old catcher stood behind home plate for the national anthem. And they popped flashbulbs as he crouched for the first pitch.

Wieters gave them an immediate reason to scream and shout. After Detroit leadoff hitter Josh Anderson attempted to drop a bunt on the first pitch of the game, Wieters pounced on the slow roller and threw a strike to first base.

One pitch, one play, one out recorded for the Orioles franchise's newly anointed savior in shinguards.

In his first at-bat, an announced crowd of 42,704 rose to its feet for a standing ovation. Orioles officials said the team sold about 15,000 of those tickets after Wieters' promotion was announced Tuesday night.

With the crowd still standing, Wieters flied out to right field on his fourth big-league pitch. He batted again in the third, after Luke Scott cleared the bases with a grand slam, and grounded out. For the game, he went 0-for-4.

But given the palpable excitement at Camden Yards, it didn't seem to matter.

"He's not going to be a superstar right off the bat, but if he finishes the season at .250, well, that's better than our other catchers," said Orioles fan Carl Hucke of Forest Hill.

Seven guys in the left-field upper deck showed their fanaticism, painting their bare chests orange with black block letters that spelled W-I-E-T-E-R-S.

"It looked a lot better when we left the house before it rained," said 19-year-old Ben Smith, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the first E in Wieters, who attended the game with alumni and current students from Liberty and Century high schools.

Four hours before the rain-delayed first pitch, Wieters was already in the spotlight, surrounded by the news media in the Orioles' clubhouse while his teammates joked loudly.

"Let him breathe," corner infielder Ty Wigginton yelled.

"Put him in the Hall of Fame," center fielder Adam Jones said jokingly.

Later, Jones, who has been through "top-prospect" billing himself, said he realizes why Wieters has received so much attention but hopes people don't expect too much too soon.

"I understand. The No. 1 prospect, so much hype," Jones said. "But don't make him a Hall of Famer before he is one. Let him play his first game before all that."

The first wave of news media - 15 television and radio reporters and 10 video cameramen - rushed into the Orioles clubhouse at 3:35 p.m. Friday, followed by a second session of about a dozen print and Internet writers.

The first question from the writers: Are you already worn out by the attention?

"No, I am actually pretty excited to get playing tonight," said Wieters, who was notified Tuesday that he would be recalled from Triple-A Norfolk. "Having the past two days off to sit back and think about it, it's exciting to get in this clubhouse and get to see some of the guys that I haven't seen since spring training."

Wieters, who received a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus and batted .305 with five homers and 30 RBIs at Norfolk before his promotion, said he anticipated how crazy his first day would be.

"You get the voice mails and get the text messages from everybody that I think you've ever met in your life, so you sort of see how big it is," he said. "At the same time, once that first pitch is thrown, it's just back to playing baseball."

Fans offered their thoughts on Wieters, some more objective than others.

"I just hope he doesn't try to do too much." said the catcher's father, Richard Wieters, of Goose Creek, S.C. "It's hard not to try and hit five home runs and throw everybody out. But he'll get it under control."

Richard Wieters, 54, arrived with a large contingent of family members, including the catcher's mother, grandmother, wife, sister and aunt.

"I'll be cheering if I'm not biting my nails in nervous anticipation," said Maria Wieters, the catcher's wife. "No matter what he does tonight, I told him he's a winner."

Wieters' arrival was arguably the most anticipated Orioles debut since former No. 1 overall pick and pitcher Ben McDonald entered a pennant race in Sept. 6, 1989.

"There's lots of pressure, him being a No. 1 prospect," said Dion Soskin, 43, an accountant from York, Pa. "Is he the Second Coming? Time will tell."

Wieters said he was pleased with the fan support and the Orioles 7-2 win.

"Hopefully," Wieters said, "they'll keep cheering me for a few more games."

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