Orioles ready to get going, but without a few starters Sore elbow keeps Mussina off mound; Coppinger also ailing


The Orioles open the 1997 baseball season today against the Kansas City Royals in a 3: 05 p.m. game at sold-out Camden Yards, but the heady excitement that usually characterizes Opening Day in Baltimore has been tempered by a string of last-minute injuries that has depleted the starting rotation and diluted the batting order.

In other words, ready or not, here they come.

Right-hander Mike Mussina had to be scratched from an Opening Day rematch with Royals ace Kevin Appier because of a sore elbow. Promising pitcher Rocky Coppinger was placed on the disabled list yesterday with a sore shoulder. And 50-homer leadoff man Brady Anderson could go on the disabled list today with a broken rib.

Newcomer Jimmy Key will move to the front of the rotation to face Appier today, and fellow former New York Yankee Scott Kamieniecki will pitch the second game of the two-game series on Thursday night. If that isn't enough change for the Orioles faithful, there is a whole lot more that will be different this year.

The roster will be different. Orioles hero Cal Ripken will start the season somewhere other than at shortstop for the first time since 1982. Eric Davis has replaced Bobby Bonilla in right field. Key has traded places with former Orioles pitcher David Wells. Mike Bordick will take Ripken's place at short.

The environment will be different. The price of tickets has gone up, and the number of parking spaces has gone down. The football stadium that is rising several hundred yards from Oriole Park has annexed 2,600 parking spots and disrupted the fan-friendly ambience of Camden Yards.

The season will be different. It will be played under a bright cloud of labor peace for the first time in nearly five years, and Major League Baseball will begin its limited experiment with interleague play in June.

"I think we've been ready to go since it ended last year," said Mussina, who should be ready to go in another week. "Once you get [to the postseason], you always feel like it ended too soon."

It ended with the Yankees celebrating their five-game American League Championship Series victory on the field at Camden Yards. It ended with owner Peter Angelos looking down on their celebration and muttering that it would not happen that way again. It will begin anew with the Orioles favored to return to the playoffs -- perhaps for an ALCS rematch with their divisional rival.

"It's showtime," said right fielder Eric Davis, one of several fresh faces who will give the team a new look in '97.

The weather could be a problem. The wonderful weekend gave way to blustery winds and snow flurries yesterday, so it figures to be chilly and brisk when Key throws the first pitch to Royals leadoff man Jose Offerman. The opener was rained out a year ago -- and rescheduled for the next day -- but today's game is expected to go on as planned.

It will be a tough day to swing the bat, and it will be made tougher for the Orioles because they are likely to be without two of their most productive hitters. Anderson is doubtful, and second baseman Roberto Alomar will miss the first five games of the regular season while he serves his suspension for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck last September.

The focus instead will be on Ripken and Bordick, the central characters in the Orioles' off-season reconstruction. Ripken will take the field at third to his usual Opening Day ovation. Bordick will trot out to the sacred patch of ground at shortstop and wait to see how he is received in this Cal-town.

"I'm excited anxious," Bordick said. "I've been anticipating Opening Day for a couple of months now. From what I've been told, they've got the best Opening Day going in Baltimore. I'm excited about that."

He should be well-received. Ripken was quick to embrace him, and Orioles fans figure to follow his lead. Bordick is a slick-fielding shortstop who -- in concert with the steady Ripken at third -- likely will improve the club's infield defense significantly, but total acceptance may take some time.

"I can't control that," Bordick said. "The only thing I can do is go out and play."

There also is the question of how the Orioles will be accepted by the umpires, who don't figure to cut them a lot of slack after last year's unpleasantness. The umpires are threatening to adopt a zero-tolerance policy and eject players and managers who argue calls this year. If that happens, the Orioles likely will feel their wrath.

It's a little too early to get excited about interleague play. The first regular-season encounters between the American League and National League do not take place until June.

Welcome to baseball's brave new world. It's time to wipe the slate clean, drag the infield and get on with it.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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