On a day supposedly devoted to first impressions, the Orioles restated the importance of tradition.
Playing his 2,317th consecutive game with a new two-year, $15.1 million contract extension, third baseman Cal Ripken crafted a career afternoon within the Orioles' 4-2 Opening Day win at Camden Yards over the Kansas City Royals.
Ripken signed. Ripken fielded. Ripken hit. Mixed with starting pitcher Jimmy Key's seamless debut and Eric Davis' sixth-inning tie-breaking double, the performance provided a week's good feeling in less than four hours.
"Opening Day is usually nerve-racking," Ripken said during a post-game news conference. "I've had a position change. I'm used to seeing the ball from a different perspective. I'm working on a contract. But for some reason I was very relaxed very comfortable."
Rather than rack his nerves, the 36-year-old Ripken went after Royals starter Kevin Appier with a fourth-inning bases-empty home run and two doubles. He also robbed Jeff King of a probable RBI double with his sprawling stop and throw to end the top of the fourth.
"I wish it would have been an easier chance, but they don't call it the hot corner for nothing," Ripken said. "It was difficult to pick the ball up off the bat."
The moment was not lost upon Ripken or his team. What could have represented a bubbling distraction instead transformed itself into collective relief.
"It's very rare that somebody gets to play a whole career for one team," Ripken said. "Don't think I don't think I'm lucky to have been able to do that. This is a very happy day."
Ripken also served as a rare tie to the past. With Brady Anderson quarantined as a designated hitter, the new-look Orioles returned only two starters, catcher Chris Hoiles and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, to the positions they manned last Opening Day. They employed a starting pitcher who helped drive them from last year's American League Championship Series and a cleanup hitter two years removed from oblivion. The offensive mesh sometimes lacked efficiency but never relented.
While riding a solid outing by Key, the Orioles repeatedly jumped Appier but scored only two of 12 base runners against him. The Orioles managed 19 base runners to the Royals' 10.
Along with new faces, they've committed themselves to something more than a softball-style offense. No one said the transition would be easy. The Orioles sacrificed successfully but also had two runners thrown out in one inning. They stranded 13 runners but finally exploited the Royals' bullpen for single runs in the sixth and seventh innings. Reliever Jamie Walker absorbed the loss in his major-league debut.
Traditionally a sluggish April pitcher, Appier struck out the side in the first inning then began to flail. But the Orioles persistently offered him a life preserver by going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position through five innings.
Appier survived Ripken's bloop double to begin the second and fought off another problem in the third by inducing Davis to ground out with runners at first and third.
Less than two hours after agreeing to terms, the transplanted shortstop provided the Orioles their first lead of the season by beginning the fourth inning with a home run into the left-field stands. It was Ripken's fourth Opening Day homer. "I don't think we had a deal until after the home run," Ripken quipped.
Ripken stoked the moment by ending the inning's top half with a diving stop against King. As the primary beneficiary, Key wasted little time endorsing Ripken's transition to a new position.
"He's an athlete. I don't care where you put him," said Key. "You could catch him. You could play him at first. He could still play because he's so good an athlete. And you know he can hit."
Added Ripken: "The honest truth is you work hard and prepare for that at-bat. Before today I can't say I've had much success against Appier. I got a pitch I could hit and pretty much got it. I'd like to say I knew I was going to have a press conference so I'd hit a home run, but it just doesn't work out that way,".
Unnerved, Appier lost the strike zone. He walked B. J. Surhoff, then surrendered a single to center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds. Hoiles walked to load the bases with none out and No. 9 hitter Jeff Reboulet coaxed the inning's third pass to force home Surhoff for a 2-0 lead.
The Royals' bullpen quickly sprung into action. Just as quickly, the Orioles' attack mellowed.
"He's a tough pitcher. You've got to give him some credit," said second baseman Reboulet, one of three starters making their Orioles debut. "He got in trouble several times, but was able to turn it up a notch. That's what great pitchers can do. We might have helped him out a little bit, but he made good pitches. Maybe against a lesser pitcher we get that one hit and bust the game open."
The game ganged up on Key in the sixth when the Royals broke through for two unearned runs. The catalyst was a one-out throwing error by Mike Bordick, who endured a tough debut as Ripken's replacement at shortstop.
Given the extra out from Bordick's misplay of Jose Offerman's grounder, the Royals manufactured the tying run after Tom Goodwin was hit in the ribs by Key. Bip Roberts made the score 2-1 on a flare to right field. Able to take third on the single, Goodwin scored on King's fly out to the left-field warning track.
The outcome did little to diminish Key's understated brilliance -- four hits, one walk and four strikeouts in six polished innings. Only one of Key's last 16 outs came on a fly ball. Following a solid spring that saw him walk only four of 108 batters, the finesse pitcher presented an obvious counter to Appier's scattershot power.
"I have high expectations of myself every time I go out there," said Key, now 7-0 on Opening Day, including 4-0 against the Royals. "I wouldn't have been satisfied if I'd gone out there and given up a bunch of hits or thrown a lot of pitches."
With Anderson reaching third on a leadoff infield single, Bordick's sacrifice and Palmeiro's right-side grounder, Davis lashed reliever Randy Veres for the game-winning RBI on a hooked double into the left-field corner.
"I don't think there's any limitation to what this team can do offensively," said Davis. "It's pretty much the same as it was last year. What we have is the ability to do a lot of things. If we continue to put pressure on people, we have a better chance to win."
The 3-2 lead was then entrusted to a bullpen that allowed little. The four-man tag team of Alan Mills, Jesse Orosco, Armando Benitez and Randy Myers struck out six in three scoreless innings.
Anderson completed a remarkable game by scoring Hoiles with his third single in the seventh inning.
Supposedly doubtful before yesterday's game, Anderson reached base four times as a designated hitter. Davis looked to have pushed the lead to three runs in the ninth, but was robbed of a home run by Goodwin.
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Royals' Jose Rosado (8-6, 3.21 ERA in 1996) vs. Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (1-2, 11.12 ERA in '96)
% Tickets: 7,000 remain
Pub Date: 4/03/97