Orange balloons, a record crowd and hope eternal at Camden Yards

Even after 12 straight losing seasons, sellout crowd of 48,891 set Orioles Opening Day record at home ballpark

April 09, 2010|By Robert Little | robert.little@baltsun.com

Rob Jones was selling Orioles hats and T-shirts on the sidewalk along Conway Street again, lured back after a four-year absence by the thought that the team just might make a game of it this season.

Melody Higgins was back in line Tuesday at the stadium's main entrance, early as always, having beaten back winter's modest urge to cancel her season tickets.

Even inside Oriole Park, scene of 12 straight losing campaigns, the mood was hopeful. Kids cutting school, ushers in new jackets hugging longtime fans, smiling police officers in starched shirts and neckties, fireworks, a fighter-jet flyover — all of it conspired in a symphony of optimism that only a home opener could deliver.

"It's beautiful outside, baseball is back and anything can happen," said Jones, 40, a Fells Point resident who had confined his business to Ravens games the past four years because of declining foot traffic outside Oriole Park.

"Maybe by July I won't feel like they can make it," said Higgins, 52, of Silver Spring. "But it's Opening Day."

This was Baltimore's annual festival of baseball hope — a celebration left ever more bereft in recent years but which yet again attracted a flock of optimistic fans. The Orioles came home to Baltimore, already with a record of 1-2 in the young 2010 season, to a sellout crowd of 48,891, an Opening Day record at Camden Yards.

And the optimism — if not always for the Orioles' championship hopes, certainly for the belief that the team's home opener would be something special — ran deep and began early in the day.

At 9:30 a.m., a dozen members of the grounds crew swarmed onto the infield with blue buckets, bending over to pinch tiny pebbles off dirt that hasn't seen a game since last fall. The winter cycle of freezing and thawing brings debris to the surface, they said, even on the perpetually manicured grounds of Oriole Park.

An hour later, head groundskeeper Nicole Sherry was ready to predict that the field had achieved the gold standard for major league play — "perfect ball roll."

"There's always some anticipation for Opening Day, a little pressure to get things ready after five months," said Sherry, in her fourth year of caring for the field at Camden Yards. "But the field's great. It's ready to play."

Behind her, on the stadium's main scoreboard, technicians were troubleshooting a blank section of the display. As one worked in the scoreboard's innards, another stood in the bleachers to observe the results. Asked for details, the man in the stands deferred to team management and asked to withhold his name.

"I don't want it to sound like anything's broken," he said, referring to the display glitch, which was gone by game time. "Not on Opening Day."

At 11 a.m., four hours before game time, Baltimore Police Lt. Dennis Reinhard and several dozen uniformed officers assembled in Section 45, behind the visitors' dugout, for a pre-game roll call. Reinhard gave his troops the usual guidance — instructions on how to deal with trespassers on the field, details on outside patrols — and then told them all to look extra sharp for the big show.

"It's not going to be a circus out there, even though Ringling Brothers is in town," said Reinhard, who manages police at the park all season long.

A few minutes into his talk, Reinhard was drowned out by the song "Pump Up the Jam" blaring on the stadium's sound system, part of a test of the crowd-rallying "Camden Meter" that records the volume of cheers. He laughed it off and continued.

"It's a great time," he said. "I'm glad to have baseball back again."

The gates opened at noon, and first in line at the main entrance was Matt Kraeger, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Mount Airy who was skipping school for the day — the only day he'll miss all year, he swears.

"It's OK," he said. "It's a tradition."

Third baseman on a traveling baseball team, Matt brought his old glove and a plan — to shag or beg for batting-practice balls from the left-field bleachers. By 12:45 p.m., he had three.

His father, Jim, who caught a ball himself, said he considers the pre-game excitement of Opening Day to be as much fun as the game. After he explained the proper strategy for snaring a foul ball without injury, a fan nearby dove over a row of plastic seats and came up empty.

"See how people dive? You break your ribs that way. It's not worth it!" Kraeger said. "It's exciting though, isn't it?"

It was the same excitement that inspired Romeo Santos, 29, a Federal Reserve employee from Pigtown, to wear a hard hat with an orange Mohawk and say things like: "Every kid in Maryland should know that feeling of catching a fly ball in Oriole Park — not picking it up, or asking for it — catching it, in the air. It's incredible."

And: "Every year," on Opening Day, "I say they're going to the World Series."

Minutes before Friday's game, Orioles legends Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell stood side by side on the pitcher's mound to throw out a pair of ceremonial first pitches. When the cheers died down, they walked into a conference room behind home plate to offer some reflections.

"Opening Day has always been a great part of baseball," Robinson said.

"Yeah, I don't care how old you are or what you're doing, you know when Opening Day is," Powell added. "It's a special feeling. Gets your heart pumping. Anything is possible."

Shortly after 3 p.m., after the U.S. and Canadian national anthems were sung, after the balloons and the orange carpet for introducing the players were cleared from the field, Brad Bergesen stepped to the mound and delivered the first pitch of Orioles baseball in Baltimore for 2010. A strike.

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