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Opening Day memories


MAJOR-LEAGUE baseball's Opening Day looms with uncertainty displacing ritual anticipation. Mudville's mighty Casey took three strikes but at least he came to bat. Neither Cal Ripken nor his teammates will take a serious swing on Monday. Freight-paying fans, jerked around unmercifully since August by the obstinate and greedy on both sides of this tangled dispute, still twist in the wind.

So, what are we left with, those of us who care a bit about what was once and -- should the insanity end -- might again become the national pastime? Regrets, frustrations, memories. Small solace, the latter, yet some. Often-dim recollections of other openers over the past 40 lustrous years since major-league baseball returned to our hometown. For the fan, the arrival of bright spring after dispiriting winter becomes official only when the home plate umpire signals "play ball" and the pennant race begins.

Most special was 1954. After a half century in the baseball wilderness, we regained our rightful place at the big league table. First, pomp and pride, parades and politicos, then a stirring 3-1 win over the strong White Sox at ecstatic, jam-packed Memorial Stadium. Some 3,300 victories were to follow on 33rd Street. Young Bob Turley limited Chicago to seven hits and fanned nine. Vern Stephens and Clint Courtney went long against fireballer Virgil Trucks to seal the win.

This was a varied trio of heroes. Turley, young, fast and wild, went on to win 14 that year and lead his league in both strikeouts and walks, only to be traded to the hated Yanks that winter. Stephens, the team's far most solid pro, was at the end of his fine career. In wartime '44, he won the batting title and sparked the St. Louis Browns to their single American League pennant in the 51 years of the franchise. (The next year, when most able-bodied men were in the armed forces, his 24 round-trippers topped the league).

Courtney, seldom a star, was a hard-bitten journeyman known as "Scrap Iron." Louisiana-born and catcher by trade, thus doubly conditioned to adversity, he was far more typical of the ragtag team we clasped to our heaving municipal bosom that unforgettable spring. His home run that day equaled the collective five-decade World Series total hit by the Browns -- one.

In their debut season, the Orioles' wins would match the year, 54; loses, not surprisingly, totaled 100. The repackaged Midwesterners had stumbled to the identical record the prior year. We were so hungry for the major-league game that little note was taken of the Browns' doleful history. St. Louis sportswriters made do with a sparse stock of adjectives: "hapless" and "cellar-dwelling." (In their last eight seasons at St. Louis, the team only once reached the rarefied air of sixth place).

Still, in just three seasons, Baltimore attained respectability and the 25-year stretch starting in 1960 saw our beloved Birds, skippered in the main by Earl Weaver, lead the majors in won-lost percentage. Ah, but nothing lasts. Switch to 1988, who could forget the mind-numbing 0-21 start. That year I saw our team start off with a 12-0 pounding from the Milwaukee Brewers, tying an AL Opening Day worst shutout record. My grandnephew, David, light years beyond any other O's rooter, companion at countless season starters, suffered with me that chilly day. Bottom of the ninth, one away, none on, and I'm pretty damn cold.

"What do you think, Dave? Shall we beat what's left of the crowd?"

A stricken look. "O ye of little faith," it bespoke. "Uncle Milton, this one's not over. We could get back in it."

That's my Dave. We never scored . . . but we stayed.

Another whipping on Opening Day 1991, this by the White Sox, 9-1. That figured since Dan Quayle threw out the first ball on that bittersweet afternoon, last starter at venerable Memorial. But a happier result the next year in those three shining hours when the gem known as Camden Yards first sparkled. Gutty Rick Sutcliffe had just enough left to get by Cleveland, aided by deer-like Mike Devereaux in center. Couldn't have gone better.

This year? Future ones? Who knows? But the goons who run the grand old game (of course, excluding the honorable Peter Angelos) can't take our memories. That treasured part of us is beyond even their grasp.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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