OPENING DAY 2003 should commence a year of Baltimore baseball celebration.
After all, it's the 20th anniversary of the Orioles' 1983 World Series championship team. Winners of 98 regular season games, their five-game series triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies, including four straight wins, set the stage for one of the great moments in Baltimore sports, when the city turned out in force to embrace the team in a jubilant victory parade.
The players were beloved, not only for their on-field excellence but also for their workman-like lack of self-absorption. Despite the presence of stars like Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr., they were as much defined by the gritty leftfield platoon of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke, the steady defense of second baseman Rich Dauer and the timely contributions of role players such as Jim Dwyer and Tito Landrum.
And it was particularly fitting that the self-deprecating catcher and part-time vaudevillian, Rick Dempsey, captured the honor of Most Valuable Player in the World Series. Of course, it didn't hurt that they had solid starting pitching, with Scott McGregor, Mike Boddicker and Mike Flanagan, and a devastating bullpen that included Tippy Martinez, Sammy Stewart and Tim Stoddard.
But the fond memories of the '83 team come with a sobering realization: That was the last Orioles team to reach the World Series. That's right. The team that once went to the World Series six times in 18 years, during which it finished first or second 15 times, has not been to the World Series in 20 years.
Only twice in those two decades - the abbreviated two-year managerial reign of Davey Johnson - have the Orioles even reached the postseason. In fact, the franchise that once had 24 winning seasons out of 26 has had only five winning seasons in its last 17 and has a current five-year streak of sub-.500 fourth-place finishes in a five-team division. Thank goodness for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
And the team has already advised its fans that, while it proceeds with yet another rebuilding year, it will not be able to complete with the division rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Accordingly, the fans have been left with little but hope for good things from the new management team.
Moreover, the fans' search for some silver lining in the lingering clouds - something to get excited about - has been frustrated by the team's off-season failure, despite repeated effort, to acquire the sought-after power hitter admittedly needed in a lineup that last year finished last or next to last in team batting average, on base percentage, walks, runs batted in and runs scored.
Adding to the gloom is the spring training death of pitcher Steve Bechler, which has been associated with his use of a dietary supplement containing the stimulant ephedrine. With his death, the beleaguered Orioles unwittingly brought to light one of baseball's most serious problems - the lack of a meaningful policy and testing procedure for drug, steroid and supplement use, which both endangers lives and diminishes the validity of statistical performances.
But this is spring, and Opening Day.
The game - despite allegations concerning the use of enhancements, escalating ticket and concession prices, decreasing competitive balance and general economic senselessness - remains beautiful and compelling to behold on the field. That's reason enough to be invigorated by a new season and warmed by the memory of a past one.
And it's reason to reflect appreciatively on a championship and the communal glow that accompanies its achievement - made all the more precious by the passing of 20 years.
Raymond Daniel Burke is a Baltimore native and a partner in a downtown law firm.