A fine day for baseball, if only Orioles had won; Rite of the season only partly dampened for manager and fans


The Orioles rolled out the orange carpet yesterday. They also unrolled another historic number on the B&O; Warehouse. If only they could have rolled over the Cleveland Indians, it would have been a perfect Opening Day at Camden Yards.

The weather held up.

The Cal Ripken countdown resumed.

But, alas, the American League Central champions outlasted Mike Mussina and opened the season with a 4-1 victory over the Orioles before a subdued sellout crowd of 46,902.

Not exactly a perfect beginning.

Mussina, the one true thing in the Orioles rotation, pitched well enough to make it a festive occasion. He took a two-hitter into the eighth inning, but the Orioles lineup could not take advantage of a shaky start by Indians starter Bartolo Colon.

"The way Mike pitched today, you need to take advantage of it," said new manager Mike Hargrove, who opened his Orioles career against the team that fired him in October. "You hate to see an opportunity like that slip away, but I think we played hard and played well."

There are two Opening Days. There is the strategic Opening Day, which didn't go well, and there is the ceremonial Opening Day, which came off without a hitch.

There was a high probability of rain, but the sun broke through the clouds just before game time and shined brightly on the pregame ceremonies.

The Orioles introduced their team of the century, which included Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Harold Baines, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and manager Earl Weaver. Mayor Martin O'Malley and movie director Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, threw out the first pitches. Club employees released dozens of white doves.

"It's always nice to be out there, to be recognized for something like that," Ripken said. "It was great standing there next to Ed."

Ripken provided the first on-field highlight of the season, with a double in his first official at-bat since undergoing back surgery in September. His 2,992nd career hit was a soft fly that fell between two Indians outfielders, but it looked like a line drive on the warehouse wall, where the Orioles evoked memories of Ripken's consecutive-games countdown with another numerical tribute: eight to go for 3,000.

There were a couple of other positive moments. First baseman Will Clark singled in his second at-bat, giving him a hit in each of the 14 Opening Days he has played during his major-league career. Brady Anderson singled home the first Orioles run of the season in the second inning, but that was all the Orioles would manage against Colon, even though he walked five batters in the first two innings.

"You want to start off the year on a high note, especially with your ace [Mussina] going," Clark said, "but I think we gave it a good effort. We had opportunities. We just didn't take advantage of them."

The Orioles cannot afford to waste too many good Mussina starts. He is the only proven veteran in the starting rotation. No. 2 starter Sidney Ponson will be coming off a difficult spring when he takes the mound in the second game of the three-game series tomorrow night, and the rotation gets decidedly thinner after that.

In short, it could be a difficult season, but Opening Day still is an unofficial holiday in Baltimore. The day began under threatening skies, but that didn't dampen the merry atmosphere that enveloped the Inner Harbor by early afternoon.

In the B&O; Warehouse, politicians and other VIPs hobnobbed with members of the Orioles ownership group, sampling an impressive spread that included everything from soft-shell crabs to sushi.

Security personnel cleared an elevator for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Outside, some of the common folk stood patiently in the "prayer line," waiting -- and hoping -- for the opportunity to buy any leftover bleacher seats as game time approached.

"Last year, it was real easy," said Steve Hammer of Columbia. "You walked up and they ushered you in five at a time to buy $13 tickets. If you don't get them that way, at around 3 p.m. people show up with extra tickets, because someone couldn't make it. Sometimes they just give them to you.

"Worst case, I go somewhere and have lunch and watch the game. There's nothing to lose."

It was an Orioles crowd, but it wasn't unanimous. Diane Balog of Youngstown, Ohio, proudly wore an Indians jersey and came to the belated defense of recently ousted Indians manager Mike Hargrove.

"He did a good job while he was there," Balog said. "He was just a scapegoat in all this."

"This is it," said her brother John, a Baltimore resident. "Who are they going to blame if they don't make it this year? We needed to change things in the clubhouse. That was the question for [Indians general manager] John Hart."

Hargrove didn't exactly have the last laugh. In an afternoon of flashbacks, he saw his 18-game winner from last year, Colon, recover from a rocky start with the help of a fantastic play by All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel in the seventh inning.

"It's a little frustrating," Hargrove said, "but I think you have to tip your hat to the guys on the other side."

Someone asked Hargrove after the game whether there was a moment when he forgot himself and thought he was managing the other guys.

"No, I honestly didn't," he said, "because I knew that I was where I needed to be where I belong."

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