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8 Upper

Batter Down

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/10/2002

Opening Day was cold and hopeful. Second-game day was just cold. The wind pounded through the upper deck, where empty seats seemed to collect and hold the darkness. Down below, in his dull gray Yankees uniform, David Wells was pitching: slowly, stolidly, effectively. The Orioles were hitting pop-ups.

Beside us, a group of middle-aged men huddled under a vast Yankees blanket. A few rows down, a guy in a Derek Jeter jersey and another in a Jason Giambi jersey were whooping it up, hollering and pointing to their shirt-backs when their chosen heroes were batting. The Derek Jeter guy would strip off his jacket to show the jersey, then cover up again when Jeter made an out. Yankees fans. Right behind us, a pudgy girl announced that she would gladly let Jeter--the real Derek Jeter, she meant, not the ersatz Jeter of Section 334--fuck her up the ass.

Still, till the game was over, the Orioles were in first place and the Yankees were in last. Roger Clemens had taken a ball off his pitching hand in the fourth inning of the opener, then suffered an eight-run meltdown--five walks, a wild pitch, and a grand slam--in the next inning-plus. O's fans, giddy about the Maryland Terrapins, broke out the Cole Field House "Rock and Roll Part II" chant. "Hey," they serenaded Clemens and his fellow defending American League champions, "you suck! We're gonna beat the hell out of you, and you, and you . . ."

Anything is possible on Opening Day. The corollary: Then comes the rest of the season. The Orioles scored twice as many runs off Clemens as they would score in their next five games combined. In game two, off Wells, they got nothing. With a man aboard in the fourth, David Segui smashed one ball to center field, and it died in the jaws of the wind. The Yankees' Robin Ventura hit a wobbly pop fly up the right-field line in the seventh, and the wind pulled it over the scoreboard.

And so, Jason Johnson took the O's first loss of 2002. He struck out six, he looked good, and he lost, 1-0. The Yankees fans high-fived each other and looked around for Orioles fans to heckle.

The next night, Sidney Ponson lost, 4-1. The Yankees left, and the Boston Red Sox came in. Josh Towers lost, 3-0. Then Scott Erickson, the Opening Day winner, came back and lost 4-2, on a late home run by Nomar Garciaparra.

The Associated Press snapped a picture just after Garciaparra's homer went into the left-field stands. It shows a dozen Red Sox fans on their feet, in various poses of jubilation, engulfing four or five stricken Orioles supporters. These were the left-field stands at Oriole Park, the first weekend of the season. The picture ran in the next day's paper, on Sunday morning, and then Calvin Maduro went out that afternoon and lost, 4-1.

And where does this leave the rebuilding Orioles? The faithful fan, sitting quietly in a cold seat while New York and Boston rooters caper around, doesn't have much to go on. The pitching--the pitching may be all right. Johnson seems to be picking up his occasionally dominant form of last year; Erickson looks strong and healthy. Ponson looked great till he threw Ventura a two-out, 0-2 meatball--which is to say he looked like Sidney Ponson. The bullpen, through the first weekend, has been nearly flawless.

But the batters! Six games isn't much, but six games times nine batters is 186 at-bats, almost a third of a season for one player. If the Orioles were that player, he'd be on a pace to hit 10 homers and drive in 42 runs for the season.

Common sense says the O's won't bat .167 all year. But common sense doesn't say what they will do. Jay Gibbons, the one real prospect among them, is already tearing the cover off the ball. Who will join him? Jerry Hairston Jr., solemnly given leadoff duties in spring training, is trying to slug the ball again, and started off with a .120 on-base percentage. Newcomer Chris Singleton, a hollow .298 hitter with the White Sox last year, was hitting a hollow .125.

The opposing pitchers had a lot to do with that. The five losses included games thrown by Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez, the best the league has to offer. The Orioles won't be facing their like every day. Still, they will be competing with the Yankees and Red Sox in the standings, all season long.

And they just haven't got the players to keep up. Jeff Conine is stalwart. Geronimo Gil looks like a nice, effective catcher. Melvin Mora is doing his darnedest in left field. Nobody is Giambi or Jeter, Garciaparra or Manny Ramirez. Forget the stars, the ads say; see the kids and the hard workers. But what's the attraction in seeing them get their brains beaten in?

With delight, 8 Upper presents the results of the its March Madness Title IX Pointless Prognostication Contest. Underscoring the pointlessness of the whole prognostication game, the victor is George Tolley of Timonium, who prevailed despite having picked Connecticut--that would be undefeated, top-ranked, all-conquering champion Connecticut--to fall to Tennessee in the women's national semifinals (actual score: UConn 79, Tennessee 56).

By being right on the entire women's Final Four (Connecticut, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Duke), Tolley rolled up enough points to survive being wrong the rest of the way. And so, he will get a UConn T-shirt. Runner-up Kara Cerveny of Baltimore had the mighty Huskies to win; unfortunately, she had them joined by Stanford and North Carolina in the Final Four. Cerveny gets a tip of the hat, and the warm and futile satisfaction of being correct in the end.

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