Hate to admit this, but Friday’s home opener will be my 34th since getting into the baseball-writing business. The first one was in 1980 at Anaheim Stadium, but I really don’t remember much about it. I was probably still stunned that anyone would pay me to cover ballgames.
My second Opening Day, which took place at Dodger Stadium in 1981, has to be my most memorable. It was on that day that a cherubic 20-year-old pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela got the Opening Day assignment by default when veteran teammate Jerry Reuss had to back up in the rotation because of an injury.
I don’t have to tell any real ball fan what happened that day. Valenzuela pitched a gem and kicked off a string of eight victories in eight starts, five of them by shutout. He even mixed in a couple of big hits and created a phenomenon known in the Los Angeles area as Fernandomania. He went on to have a very good career with the Dodgers and even pitched awhile for the Orioles during the 1990s.
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My second-most memorable Opening Day took place on the road. The Orioles opened the 1990 season in Kansas City after the regular-season schedule had to be adjusted because of labor problems. That was my first regular-season game as an Orioles beat writer after moving to the Baltimore area from Southern California, and it was quite a night.
Big Sam Horn hit two homers and drove in six runs at Royals Stadium to carry the Orioles to an exciting extra-inning victory in their first meaningful game since the exhilirating (and heartbreaking) end of the magical “Why Not?” season of 1989.
Horn, who was signed at the start of spring training to add some punch to the Orioles lineup, had all six RBIs for the Orioles in that game, but only had 39 more the rest of the season. The following winter the Orioles went out looking for another power and acquired Glenn Davis in what is now regarded as the worst deal in club histotry.
The Bronze Medal goes to the Angels road opener in Seattle in 1986, and the reason it is memorable had nothing to do with the team I was covering. That was the night that current Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley delivered a performance even more dynamic than the one Horn produced in KC four years later.
Presley hit a game-tying two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning and then jacked a two-out walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning to carry the M’s to an 8-4 victory.
When I met Presley for the first time two years ago, I mentioned that I had been at his greatest game, and he gave me a funny look. He claimed that he didn’t remember the game, which was absolutely beyond belief.
Later, he admitted that he was just giving me a hard time, and I knew right then that we were going to get along just fine.
I know some Orioles fans are going to ask why I didn’t chose the very first game at Oriole Park in 1992, and it’s a fair question. That game was memorable because it was part of a historic grand opening and Rick Sutcliffe pitched a great game to christen the new ballpark in style, but the actual game didn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck the way those other three did.
Sorry, but it’ll have to settle for an honorable mention.