For one day, put aside doubts, savor the game


IT WAS RAINING and snowing and not at all the kind of weather any rational person would want to see on the eve of Opening Day.

Outside the Orioles clubhouse, Jim Bradley, the trusty attendant, waved off any concern about baseball's official 2003 start in Charm City.

"Are you kidding? With 48,000 tickets sold? They'll play," Jim said yesterday.

Good, bad but definitely never indifferent, they'll play.

Here's an Opening Day thought to ponder: What would Baltimore be like without the Orioles?

Sure, most of us have them pegged for fourth place - again - in the American League East.

Yes, we're still waiting for the new front office tandem to sign a No. 3 or No. 4 hitter for those 100 extra runs the Orioles need, not to mention a little juice and a hint of star power at Camden Yards.

And, yes, there's reason to believe that baseball's impending decision on where to put the Montreal Expos could spell a tremendous tidal shift in revenues and loyalties - a tough blow to the Orioles - should Washington get the nod this July.

These are not exactly the best of times in Orioles history.

But today, on Opening Day - an unofficial national holiday for those who feel baseball is a cherished part of daily life - it's a day to break out all those better feelings and impulses.

Like optimism. Like thankfulness. Like goofy sentimentalism.

Hey, as starter Rodrigo Lopez said about Opening Day, it's a clean slate. Everyone's numbers are the same.

That leaves us 364 other days on the calendar for the requisite skepticism that breeds around a franchise looking to climb out of its long-standing slump.

Twenty years ago, the Orioles opened their last season of championship glory. This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Orioles' 1983 World Series title.

"I remember we had a couple of seven-game losing streaks, but we didn't give up too much ground," Rick Dempsey said yesterday.

"The pitching staff was pitching pretty well, especially Mike Boddicker. What a thing it was to call up a guy like that from Triple-A and have him be such a big piece of the puzzle that we needed. We got locked in pretty early, so it was easy to call games for those guys. I can't believe it was 20 years ago. Time's flying," said Dempsey, the 1983 team's catcher and now an Orioles coach.

Time is either flying, or, in the case of a 4-32 free fall, it's crawling. See, we usually talk about 1983 and say how rotten it is that it has been 20 years for the Orioles. But for once, like today, think of it the way Eddie Murray thinks about it.

"The 1983 season was as good as it gets. Unfortunately, we only got to do it once, but think about how some great players don't ever get to experience that at all," Murray said yesterday.

In addition to this being the 20th anniversary of the Orioles' last title, this is the 50th season for the American League Orioles in Baltimore.

Bill Veeck's financial woes in St. Louis prompted the sale of the American League Browns to a local syndicate of owners. By the next spring, the big league Orioles were on the field, official, marking a symbolic step up as Baltimore went from Triple-A to big league and never looked back.

Orioles umpires attendant Ernie Tyler, who has not missed a game at Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards since Opening Day 1960, grew up two blocks from Memorial Stadium and was there for the first opener in 1954.

"When they first came to town, they held a monster parade down Charles Street. All the players were in cars, and they threw out little plastic balls," Tyler said.

"I remember the game Opening Day. The Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox, 3-1. Clint Courtney, the lefty catcher, he hit a home run. Yes, it was an excellent day, and the season wasn't bad either. We had baseball. They had fought so many years to get it, and finally it was here."

This is the perfect message on a day like today, and Tyler is one of many long-standing Baltimore baseball fans who can speak to this point with such plain, honest eloquence.

"I know the team has taken a lot of criticism, especially since 1997 and '96, but the way I feel about the Orioles is that they're here," Tyler said.

"Every day they've been here has been a blessing for the city. It used to be you'd hear about Washington and New York and nothing in between. When we added baseball and ... football, it got us on the map. People know about Baltimore all over the country. People criticize, but remember, they're still here. That's the best part - they're still here."

A day will soon come to take stock of the rebuilding project Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie are undertaking. A day will soon come to gnash our teeth, pull our hair and wonder when the Orioles and not the Red Sox or Yankees get more fans at Camden Yards for those late September games that should mean more. But not now. We all know what Opening Day is about. It's a nice day on the schedule, especially in a city that so loves its Orioles.

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