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Opening Day is magic for fans as weather breaks and Orioles win

Souped-up lineup has Baltimore feeling hopeful as O's edge Red Sox

By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

8:41 PM EDT, March 31, 2014

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Two hours before Chris Tillman's first pitch, as the sun poured healing rays onto Eutaw Street and thousands of orange-and-black-clad fans flooded toward the turnstiles, a man in a Brooks Robinson jersey leaned against the No. 5 Hall of Fame sculpture in front of Camden Yards.

Fred Crouse of Parkville, 53, was waiting for his wife and daughter. He'd been so eager to get to the ballpark for Opening Day 2014, he'd taken off running, leaving them far behind.

"I was mad to get here for the buzz," said Crouse, a lifelong Orioles fan, raising his voice in a brisk wind Monday before the 2-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox. "Just look at this place. It's pure excitement."

To baseball fans, Opening Day always has signified a clean slate, a fresh chance at success, and, as Crouse put it, the "start of a long and wonderful journey, no matter where it ends." This year, Baltimore fans had special reason to relish their new beginning, the 60th in team history.

To many, the chill weather and seemingly endless snow have felt nearly as bleak as their team's all-too-recent streak of 14 straight losing years. But the O's resurgence in the Buck Showalter era — and the late addition of several big-name free agents — have given the coming season a feeling almost as limitless as Monday's brilliantly clear sky.

Just the day before, after all, winter had returned to pummel the region. But Monday, a sellout crowd of 46,685 filled the ballpark.

"The juxtaposition is amazing. We had snow yesterday, and I could be wearing shorts today," said Sam Gallant, who sat in a section of the sun-drenched right field stands with his 13-year-old daughter, Maya.

Gallant said he'd gotten no time off during the winter's many snowstorms.

"I don't get snow days. I don't get sick days. But I do get Opening Day," said Gallant, who found a replacement for half the day Monday and pulled Maya out of school for the day.

What did they say at Maya's school when she told them she'd be playing hooky?

"Have fun!" she recalled, laughing.

As the O's and visiting Red Sox took batting practice, a mob of fans crammed the flag court above right field, socializing, snacking and scrambling for the baseballs any player happened to slug over the wall.

For a family from Fallston, the scene was a confluence of magical moments.

Longtime Orioles fans Brian and Melanie Elliott surprised their children, Cheyenne, 15, and Chase, 12, by presenting them with tickets Monday morning.

It wasn't enough that Cheyenne and Chase got to cut school for their first-ever Opening Day (their official excuse: "a family emergency"). Each also ended up grabbing a batting-practice home run ball — Cheyenne got one off the bat of reigning World Series MVP David Ortiz, Chase one from Orioles slugger Chris Davis.

"I hope they're always this lucky," their dad, Brian, said. "I always say it's better to be lucky than good."

As is often the case, the day meant new memories for several families. Ben Hoffman of Guilford, a financier, arrived shortly before game time with his son Keating, 5, who sported an O's T-shirt.

Hoffman, who grew up in Boston, said his father took him to plenty of Red Sox games as a kid, and he plans to do the same with Keating, who has been to several games at Camden Yards, but never Opening Day.

"Opening Day means the start of springtime, beautiful weather, and, most importantly, time with my family," said Hoffman, who moved to town 10 years ago and has since become an O's rooter.

One section away, a man in a Manny Machado jersey sat with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

"This is Scarlett Rankin," said a beaming Derek Rankin, a Hagerstown native who is a captain in the Air Force stationed at Travis Air Force base in California. "It's her first game."

Rankin and his wife, Lesley, had just returned to Maryland to celebrate Scarlett's first birthday with her grandparents — and to visit just before his pending deployment overseas.

The last time the couple had seen a game at beloved Camden Yards, in 2011, a ballpark employee had predicted that the next time they came, they'd have a child of their own.

"Here she is," said Rankin, a lifelong Cal Ripken fan who said that, with Showalter's leadership, Adam Jones coming into his own as a superstar and free-agent additions like slugger Nelson Cruz, this year's Orioles would win the AL East. "This is an emotional day for so many reasons."

An hour before the game began, more than 60 people braved a chilly wind in the line at Boog's BBQ on Eutaw Street, their appetites stimulated by the aromas of pulled pork and beef on the grill.

Boog Powell, the onetime slugging first baseman, sat in a folding chair, signing autographs and greeting fans.

A friend snapped photos as lifelong fan Kathy Stankovic, clad in an orange and black jersey and Orioles earrings, sat in Powell's lap, laughing, and friends Geneva Hall and Sue Dicus leaned into the picture.

They've been coming to Opening Day together for 30 years, they said, and they always stop by to visit the gregarious Powell, a friend since his glory days as a player.

"For us, Opening Day is a sign of spring, the start of a new year, and [a symbol of] our friendship," said Stankovic, who called Powell "a total sweetheart, a very down-to-earth guy," and a man she couldn't imagine operating his business anywhere but in his adopted hometown.

After the PA announcer introduced the world champion Red Sox, the team stood between second and third as the O's entered one by one through the bullpen gate, taking the field along the traditional orange carpet as fireworks exploded and the sellout crowd roared.

The game became an aficionado's delight, a low-scoring pitcher's duel between starter Tillman, a 16-game winner last year, and Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, a longtime Orioles nemesis. The hurlers matched each other pitch for pitch.

If the game was any indication, changes in the O's lineup could boost their chances in an AL East race most expect to be intensely fought.

Zach Britton, historically a starter, got the win in relief. Cruz's solo home run, his first with his new team, provided the margin of victory, and Tommy Hunter, the presumptive closer, retired Jackie Bradley, Jr. for the final out.

All in all, a satisfying way to climax a promising day, especially given the team the Orioles defeated.

Red Sox fans appeared to be far scarcer — and much quieter — than they used to be in the not-so-long-ago days when Boston routinely embarrassed Baltimore at Camden Yards.

"This serves Boston notice — they're going to be dealing with the Orioles this year," said Don Price. He and his wife, Susan, have been season ticket holders since the early 1970s.

His son, Jeff Price, saw a larger meaning.

"You know what I tweeted when I got up this morning?" said Jeff, whose middle name is (what else?) Brooks. "I wrote, 'Some people follow the Gregorian calendar. Some people follow the lunar calendar. I follow the baseball calendar. Happy New Year!"

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Red Sox player who made the final out Monday.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com