60 home openers — and one fan who's seen them all

For his 60th Orioles home opener, Justin Vitrano didn't dress in orange. He didn't paint his face, pull on a team cap or arrive hours early to guzzle beer. He didn't jump to his feet, scream or even clap as players jogged, one by one, onto the field.

But when the announcer told everyone that after a long baseball-less winter, it was time to play ball, the 84-year-old — who might have enjoyed more consecutive Orioles openings than anyone else in town — allowed himself a little fist pump.

Vitrano and more than 45,000 others filled Oriole Park at Camden Yards to capacity Friday for a game against the Minnesota Twins, basking in a crisp, sunny spring afternoon and the chance to welcome baseball back to Baltimore for the team's 60th season.

"It's a beautiful day," Vitrano said, taking it in from the left field seat he's had since the park opened 21 years ago. "Unbelievable. Just to be here."

With the Orioles coming off their first winning season in more than a decade, the mood at the park was giddy and full of hope. Though smoking inside the stadium is now history, little else had changed since last fall. Most of the team's players were back, spirits still soared sky-high and fans fully expected to taste last season's Orioles magic once again.

The final score — Orioles 9, Twins 5 — only underscored that optimism.

The usher for Vitrano's section, Bill Coppell, has been with the Orioles for 25 years, starting at Memorial Stadium in 1988. He greeted folks filing into his turf like old friends, with cordial words and even embraces. "How're ya doin', buddy?" he called out to one ticket holder.

The people, the game and the ballpark that he unabashedly calls beautiful — the 74-year-old Coppell missed it all during the offseason, as he always does.

"How many?" Coppell asked a couple of guys looking for their seats.

"Just us two," they told him.

"You couldn't come up with anyone else?" he said with a wink and a big grin. "It's Opening Day!"

On the patio, there was Tina Bednarski of Glen Burnie, who had brought her 5-year-old granddaughter, Abby Allman, to her fifth home opener. Baseball isn't optional in this family. Bednarski raised both of her daughters on Orioles baseball, bringing them to games since, she said, "before they were born."

Abby brought along a sign with lettering in glitter and sparkles to dangle at the edge of the field. "I'm back boys," it said.

She couldn't have been more covered in Orioles-themed clothes. There was the T-shirt with a picture on the front of her posing with Chris Davis. The button-up team jersey. The orange laces for her sneakers and five baseball bracelets, a few for each wrist.

Abby was pretty sure Nick Markakis is her favorite Oriole, and it wasn't an uneducated guess. She can rattle off players and their positions like a sportswriter.

"Who's the third baseman that just signed your glove?" Grandma asked.

"Manny Machado," Abby said. And how did she score such a coup?

"Well," she said, "magic."

Along one of the bullpen's stone walls, Mike Ronnenburg of Catonsville and his son, Johnny, 13, balanced burgers and fries. Hoping to create a father-son memory — maybe some of that magic Abby was talking about — Ronnenburg gave his boy the tickets for Christmas. It was Johnny's first home opener, and he said he had more than a few jealous buddies.

"We love baseball and thought being here for [the opener] would be special," Ronnenburg said. "It's the excitement. It's fresh and everything's wide open."

Diane and Jerry Wolfe, a couple from Lansdowne, shopped for gear in one of the shops. Diane Wolfe had her eye on a canvas Orioles tote. Her own bag was already bulging with a new sweatshirt, ponytail holders made of orange ribbon and a foam finger to wave during the game.

The husband and wife both called off work for the game and were treating it like the tiniest of vacations — free, fun and spendy.

"We're taking it all in," Diane Wolfe said. "It's just a really good time."

Back at Vitrano's seat, while fans were going wild for one play or another, he was sitting placidly, hands folded on his lap. As he takes in the game, he's anything but animated. He's a scientist, really, watching and studying, thinking and analyzing.

When Manny Machado stepped up to bat, Vitrano was in the moment but also remembering other great young players: Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr.

"There's so much to see," he said, "and so much to look back on."

Vitrano grew up in Little Italy, worshipping Joe DiMaggio and playing the game with balls he and his pals would fish out of the Jones Falls after a good rain. No slouch on the diamond, the lanky boy played shortstop and center field for Baltimore's youth leagues, and when he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, he played varsity ball, too.

As a young man, Vitrano and a couple of buddies tried out for a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team on a lark one year — and made it. But the $100 a month the club offered seemed skimpy to Vitrano, who at the time was making $30 a week working for his family's produce business.

When he married his wife, Franny, in February 1954, their honeymoon just happened to be in Florida, where they could catch spring training.

"That," she says with a smile, "is when I got a clue."

She'd married a baseball lover. And how.

At home, Vitrano, father of seven and grandfather of nine, has a jar of dirt from Memorial Stadium. He's got the brass number that used to be on his old seat there — 16 — framed and displayed on a shelf.

He loves the game for what it was and for what it is. He misses the nickel hot dogs and the pre-JumboTron days, when he'd bring a transistor radio to games to complement what he saw with the play-by-play. But he also relishes some modern advances — the speed guns that measure a pitch and elaborate preseason scouting reports.

He hopes to stick around to see what's to come.

"It's a great game and it's always different," he said. "The players are different. The umpires are different. Everything about it. You can't predict what's going to happen, and you never know who's going to win until it's over."


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