For these Orioles fans, 25 years of Opening Day memories at Camden Yards

An announced 44,568 attended the Orioles' home opener in 1992. An estimated 44,568 left that first day at Camden Yards happy.

The games and seasons following that 2-0 win over the Cleveland Indians were, at times, trying. The club finished above .500 in five of its first six seasons after moving out of Memorial Stadium, but didn't make the playoffs until 1996. After a hard-luck loss in the 1997 American League Championship Series, the Orioles went 14 years without a winning season.

Only the most diehard of fans kept coming back, year after year, for the start of each Orioles season in Baltimore. But why?

"It's an opportunity for a fresh start," said Larry Bloomer, 60, of Catonsville. "Obviously, we suffered through a lot of difficult seasons until recent history, when we've actually been a lot more competitive. But during the seasons when we weren't, it was just looking forward to teams starting even. For Opening Day, everybody has a chance and everybody has an opportunity to get to the World Series. As the season progresses, maybe that wore off a little bit. But you have that sense of excitement and anticipation that, 'Hey, this might be the season that we actually get back to the playoffs.'"

Ahead of the start of Camden Yards' 25th-anniversary season Monday, The Baltimore Sun spoke with six fans who have been to each of the first 25 Orioles home openers at Oriole Park. It is not quite Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games-played streak, but they have returned to the ballpark each time for the same reasons: a love of the game, the pull of family, an abiding curiosity to discover something they've never before seen.

Wes Michael, 59, Towson

Michael joined friends to buy a 13-game season-ticket plan in 1991, wanting to guarantee he'd have tickets for the debut of Camden Yards the next season.

"I had seats in the bleachers in '92," he recalled. "And nobody knew it at the time, but those were great seats."

He lived near the construction site for the new ballpark and had frequently stopped to snap photos at various points in its evolution.

When he finally walked inside for a game on April 6, 1992, he was struck by how much the place reminded him of Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, the park of his youth. "Except there, the seats were all broken and everything smelled of cigar smoke," he recalled with a chuckle.

He has held on to a 13-game plan since. Aside from the first Opening Day, his favorite home opener came in 2013. Chris Davis had homered in each of the first three games at the Tampa Bay Rays that year. And then he did it again at Camden Yards, belting a game-winning grand slam against the Minnesota Twins.

"How could that happen?" Michael said, the wonder still apparent in his voice.

Cinda Raley, 70, Towson

Raley and her husband, Carl, did not have tickets to the first Opening Day at Camden Yards. They got in the door by agreeing to hand out gift packets for the Orioles Advocates.

"I must have said 'Welcome to Oriole Park at Camden Yards' thousands of times that day," she said.

She loved Memorial Stadium, but the new ballpark quickly won her heart. "Oh, everybody was raving about the beauty of the Warehouse," she remembered. "It was a showpiece right from the beginning."

Her favorite Opening Day memory came 11 years later. She and Carl had upper-deck seats that day as the Orioles opened against the Cleveland Indians under sunny skies. Because of their vantage point, they had a better view than most of the snow clouds that formed out of nowhere.

"It snowed to beat the bandits," Raley said. "You could see the players standing there, terrified, because they couldn't see the ball."

In the third inning, right fielder Jay Gibbons stood blind and frozen as Ellis Burks' pop fly landed inside the line to give the Indians a lead. "Oh, we were furious at the umpires," Raley said.

After a brief delay, the sun re-emerged, and the Orioles eventually rallied to win in the 13th inning. Raley has seen plenty of oddities in her 25 years going to the park, but never anything quite like that.

Leo Resop, 66, Damascus

Resop's relationship with baseball is tied to the balls themselves. In his defining moment as a fan, he caught Frank Robinson's 500th home run at Memorial Stadium in 1971 (he had grown up three miles from the ballpark but had never even caught a foul ball). He now keeps more than 200 souvenir balls in his basement.

So perhaps it's no surprise that his favorite Opening Day at Camden Yards was in 1997, the lone time the Orioles handed out commemorative balls to celebrate the beginning of the season.

"I believe it was the only time they gave out something besides the magnet schedule," he said. "And they went wire-to-wire in first place. Sweet."

Jimmy Key beat the Kansas City Royals, 4-2, in his Orioles debut that day.

Resop also cherishes his memories of Rick Sutcliffe's shutout in the first Camden Yards opener and of the snow game in 2003. The 1997 game probably wasn't as indelible as those. But for him, the ball was the thing.  

Rodney Clem, 67, Arcadia

The night before Camden Yards opened, Rodney and his son, Travis, had a sleepover in the ballpark.

Rodney had been a vendor for more than a decade in Baltimore, beginning as a soda vendor at Memorial Stadium in 1980 before moving to beer sales a few years later. When hip problems arose, he joined ARA Services (now Aramark) as a retail vendor for the final seasons at the old ballpark. With the opening of Camden Yards in 1992, he had his own retail location in left field.

Travis was about 10 or 11 then. Rodney would be working the April 6 game against the Indians, which was important. That was Travis' way into Opening Day; he didn't have a ticket.

On April 5, father and son helped set up the stand and stock up. Rodney brought food and drinks to snack on. They watched the NCAA men's basketball tournament on the TV in their storefront. At bedtime, they dozed off on two canvas Army cots Rodney had lugged in.

When they woke up, they waited, the stand and stadium closed. Then the Camden Yards gates opened and Travis was in, just another Orioles fan among the announced 44,568.

"It worked out great," Rodney said. "I was happy to get him in there."

Larry Bloomer, 60, Catonsville

Bloomer had just finished recounting his favorite memories of Camden Yards home openers spent with his four children when he did the math in his head.

There were 27 years, he said, separating the age of his oldest, Eric, and youngest, Michael. No, wait, he quickly corrected himself: It was actually 17.

The flub could be forgiven. Bloomer spent a good deal of his time raising his two boys and two girls (Jennifer and Meghan) in the ballpark. At least one has been with him for each Orioles home opener, and there have been 25 of those.

"I think that's the thing that I take away from it more so than anything else, is just being able to share that experience with my children," he said. "It's certainly an important aspect of this."

Each child became a kind of marker for his Orioles fandom, their arrival at the ballpark delineating a new iteration of the team or his own place in the ballpark. Bloomer remembers Eric wandering around his section a few rows out by the left-field foul pole as a toddler, then having to "wrangle" him back to his seat.

"I can kind of in my mind visualize when each one was with me," Bloomer said.

Howard Saks, 56, Catonsville

Saks has a home-opener tradition, and it involves a plastic bag.

Every year since 1978, he has been collecting an Orioles Opening Day pin, scorebook and schedule. Since he has been doing this for nearly four decades now, he knows well enough to bring proper storage, lest they get misplaced or wet or torn.

The pins, once secured, go onto a Camden Yards pennant. The scorebooks get supplemented with a box score. But it's the schedules that document his enduring fidelity to the club.

His method is refined. On each schedule, he affixes a dot to the games he expects to attend. When he does, he boxes it off, indicating whether the Orioles won or lost, then adds the result to his monthly tally.

"Name a year, I can go back and check it out and tell you what the record was," he said.

For instance: The Orioles went 11-9 in Memorial Stadium games he attended in 1978, the first year he started noting his attendance. In Camdne Yards' debut season, he was 15-7. Overall, his record is Hall of Fame worthy: 565 wins, 324 losses.

If this sounds like the handiwork of a baseball obsessive, well, it is. "I used to keep the tickets of all the games I went to," he said. "But then, of course, after a while, it was like: 'Oh, this is crazy.'"

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