SARASOTA, Fla. — When all the pomp and circumstance was over and the orange ribbon that had been spread across home plate was cut to officially open the new Ed Smith Stadium, the Orioles took the field and sparked hope that it wasn't all just window dressing.
They were lucky they didn't break any windows in the process.
Outfielder Nick Markakis, perhaps the face of the franchise, deposited two balls that bounced toward the player's parking lot past right field. Vladimir Guerrero, the Orioles' new slugger, hit one that nearly clipped the Tampa Bay Rays' team bus in left-center field, and multitalented center fielder Adam Jones cleared everything with a tape-measure shot to left.
With team owner Peter Angelos seated next to the dugout applauding every big swing, the Orioles hit five homers in the first two innings to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 12-6, Tuesday and open the remodeled stadium in grand fashion.
"You couldn't have scripted it much better," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Or, as president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail put it, "I would say, about three innings into it, it's not going to get any better than that."
The unveiling of the renovated stadium, which capped the Orioles' two-decade search for a long-term spring training home, was a rousing success, from a sellout crowd of 7,497 to long lines at the park's expanded concession offerings to a dominant performance by the home team.
"It was a lot of fun," Showalter said. "The organization and the city of Sarasota put a lot of time and money into this, and to see it come to pass is a pretty special day for everybody. The players kind of fed off it, too. Sometimes you kind of act like it's ho-hum, but they understand. They see all the people lined up out there with hard hats on. A lot of things went on to get to this day."
After 14 years at an outdated and undersized facility in Fort Lauderdale, the Orioles signed a 30-year agreement with Sarasota before the start of last spring. But the $31.2 million renovation project at the Ed Smith complex and the minor league complex at nearby Twin Lakes Park didn't start until June. Until Tuesday's first pitch, there were legitimate questions about whether the stadium would be ready in time for the Orioles to host their first 2011 Grapefruit League game.
However, those questions were answered, a fact celebrated in an on-field pre-game ceremony that featured Sarasota city and county officials, members of the Orioles' brass and so many others responsible for the overhaul of the 22-year-old stadium.
Some 600 workers were involved in the project, and many of them lined the infield with their hard hats on to block the steady rain that stopped about the time of Jeremy Guthrie's first pitch, fittingly a strike to Rays left fielder Johnny Damon.
"To have a sellout crowd, that was cool," Jones said. "The city and the workers have put so much effort into this ballpark. It took them eight months to pretty much transform this ballpark, and as players, we are grateful for that."
Orioles vice president of planning and development Janet Marie Smith, the driving force behind the design and construction of Camden Yards who was brought back to the organization to lead the Ed Smith project, spent most of the afternoon walking around the stadium getting feedback from fans.
"The best part is when they opened the gates and 7,000 people walked through," Smith said. "That's really the hope when you turn it over to fans. What I enjoy is seeing how people are using all the spaces. It's such a beautiful landscape with these big open concourses. You hope people take advantage of them. Spring training is meant to be about relaxing and not necessarily about hanging on every pitch."
As fans passed through the entrance gate and walked under a baseball bat chandelier from which the organization's championship pennants hung, they were handed a tropical flower called Bird of Paradise. About 45 minutes before the first pitch, a line at Cafe 54, named for the year the Orioles returned to Baltimore, extended to the door. There was also substantial traffic in the team store, with fans buying T-shirts with the names and numbers of their favorite Orioles, including catcher Matt Wieters and Brian Roberts.
"It's a really nice facility," said Dave Deli, a Parkton resident who is enjoying his first ever trip to spring training. "I like how intimate it is, and I like being so close to the game. It's going to be nice to come here. My wife and I have already talked about making this a regular trip every winter."
Terry Gans, seated about five rows from the field down the right-field line, moved to Sarasota from Montgomery County 51/2 years ago. He used to go to about 25 Orioles games a year, frequenting Memorial Stadium and then Camden Yards.