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8 Upper

Same as It Ever Was

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/5/2000

Everything is a metaphor on Opening Day. A whole misty-eyed sports-literature industry has been built around this principle. As the Orioles prepare to start the season against the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards, all the conventional symbolism of rebirth and renewal is on display: the unsullied new grass, the freshly painted lines, the Honorable Martin O'Malley in shirt-sleeves. Orange balloons proliferate, buoyant with hope for the season.

The autumnal is running neck-and-neck with the vernal, thematically. There is, for starters, the cluster of reporters around Cal Ripken Jr., crowding in the dugout around the hero while two dozen other Orioles take batting practice, ignored. The Iron Man is a handsome shade of bronze, with the perfectly trimmed remains of his hair glimmering silver even in the shade. At least one reporter literally bends an ear to hear Ripken's judiciously unmemorable responses to the standard queries -- How do you feel getting back into uniform? How do you like new manager Mike Hargrove? -- over the intermittent thwacks in the background.

Except for the chance to see Ripken one more time (unspoken subtext: one last time?), there's not much reason to pay attention today. This is the same lineup, man for man, that took the field a year ago, en route to a 6-16 April and a fourth-place finish. Hargrove has replaced Ray Miller; out in the bullpen, one set of anonymous mediocrities has replaced another. Beyond that, nothing is new. Fodder from the press office informs us that these Orioles have three rookies, "the most rookies in the Opening Day roster since 1989, when there were six." But there is no Finley-Devereaux-Worthington-Harnisch-Olson-Milacki revolution in the offing, not even half of one. Jesus Garcia only counts as a rookie because the O's refused to play him enough last year, and Willie Morales is only here because 12-year veteran Greg Myers, hired to be the regular backup catcher, reinjured a hamstring in the final exhibition game.

So without any different facts to chew on, one looks for different symbolism. Is the weather a metaphor? The forecast is for intermittent showers, supplemented by afternoon and evening thunderstorms -- in baseball terms, miserable playing conditions, with scattered rain delays. The sky is overcast and unpleasant-looking; with a 3 P.M. start, the game could become an ever-worsening ordeal, late into the night. But the Orioles think they can get the game in anyway. They're following a revised, more promising forecast, someone says.

Just as batting practice ends, the clouds break, and sun shines on the pregame activities. The all-century Orioles team takes the field -- minus Frank Robinson and Davey Johnson, who have, ah, other commitments. Radio man Jim Hunter, acting as emcee and cheerleader, is swamped with the echo from the public-address system; he vanishes into his own gabble. As Hunter introduces the 2000 O's, black-clad members of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus begin filing, unannounced, into right-center field, where they form ranks: a growing, dark, portentous mass.

Still, the sun shines on as the game (the season!) gets underway. Things look good. The Indians are pitching Bartolo Colon, their young ace fireballer. Colon can throw 100 mph, but historically he's struggled when matched against a top-flight, savvy pitcher -- such as Mike Mussina, who's going today. Colon walks two batters in the bottom of the first, then gives up a run in the bottom of the second as the O's string together a double, three walks, and a single. But the Orioles, as slow this year as they were last year, leave the bases loaded.

Mussina retires the first seven Indians. Then, in the top of the third, Travis Fryman lofts a fly ball to center field -- gets OK wood on it, not great -- and it makes it over the fence. Tie game. By the bottom of the fourth, clouds are gathering again, quickly. They cluster and disperse, cluster and disperse; a damp and chilly breeze kicks up. Mussina, cruising along in his uneventful way, retires the next 10 batters. But then Kenny Lofton hits a fly to left-center, where cheap home runs have always killed Mussina, and, bingo, the Indians are up 2-1.

Colon leaves after five innings, having surrendered three hits, six walks, and only the one run. Mussina, through seven innings, allows just two hits, but they're the home runs. The weather is inscrutable, white clouds chasing sooty ones, sunlight coming and going. The Orioles, on the other hand, are looking more and more scrutable: Just like in '99, they can hit but they can't score. They ground into two double plays, and get credited with another when Will Clark, creaky Will Clark, gets thrown out stealing in the fourth. They mount a rally in the seventh, putting runners on first and second with one out. Brady Anderson strikes out looking, and then Delino DeShields hits a flare over the infield, an apparent base hit -- but Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel, sprinting into shallow left field, dives and snares it to end the inning.

Baseball is a game of inches, as more than one Oriole will say in the locker room after the game. Mussina, though, will wince visibly as he says it. In the top of the eighth, after two quick outs, Fryman hits a ground ball off Mike Bordick's glove in the hole at short. It's a base hit. Two more follow: a liner off DeShields' glove at second, a scorcher off Clark's glove at first. A run scores, and Mussina gives way to Mike Trombley -- who gives up another sharp grounder, through Clark, to make it 4-1.

Who can fault the Orioles? All four plays were tough. But this -- not the weather, not the theatrics -- is Opening Day '00. The Indians made the plays and the O's didn't -- the same way they didn't make the plays last year or the year before. One can't help but doubt they ever will.

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