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For O's fans, hope's eternal

The Baltimore Sun

CLARIFICATION

An article Monday said that the Orioles were to "officially launch their season someplace other than Baltimore for the first time since April 7, 1978." The team did open its season on the road in 1980, 1990, and 1995, but in each case it was because labor disruptions had delayed the start of the Major League schedule.

Tony Coliano is a "warm-weather guy," a lifelong Orioles fan and an eternal optimist when it comes to Baltimore sports, all of which usually adds up to a single, irrepressible feeling this time of year. With spring in the air, the firefighter from Bel Air is aching for Opening Day - that lone moment on the baseball calendar when he knows "anything can still happen."

This year, though, the annual ritual is bringing O's fans unaccustomed pangs.

A longtime season-ticket holder, Coliano hasn't missed an Opening Day in 10 years, but during the off-season, when he got his Orioles schedule for 2007, he spotted something alarming. For the first time in nearly three decades, Major League Baseball would have his favorite team open its season on the road.

When the O's take the field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis tonight, they'll officially launch their season someplace other than Baltimore for the first time since April 7, 1978.

"It's still a special time of year because of all the anticipation," said Coliano, 34, who plans to take in the game on a big-screen television at Looney's Pub North in Bel Air. But opening away from home "does take something away from the experience. ... It's kind of a disappointment."

For a variety of reasons, Baltimore has long enjoyed an exemption from one of baseball's scheduling rules of thumb. Generally speaking, almost every team opens its season at home one year and on the road the next, according to Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball's senior vice president for club relations and scheduling. The most notable exception has been the Cincinnati Reds, Major League Baseball's first officially recognized franchise, which was granted the privilege of playing host to nearly every inaugural game of the big-league season from 1876 through 1989. (In 1877 and 1966, rain forced the team to open on the road.)

The Orioles assumed a similar position after 1971, the year the Washington Senators left the nation's capital to become the Texas Rangers. In the years that followed, the Orioles intermittently started the season at home, but from 1979 on, it became tradition.

For the previous six decades, weather permitting, Washington played host to the "Presidential Opener," the first American League game of the year. Starting with the 1910 season opener, when William Howard Taft became the first president to throw an Opening Day first pitch, the sport scheduled that contest in the capital so the commander in chief could attend.

Once the Senators left, Charm City became Washington's stand-in. The O's "pretty much inherited the traditional AL opener, mainly due to its proximity" to Washington, Feeney said.

Jim Henneman, longtime baseball writer for the News-American and The Evening Sun, remembers the spring training in the mid-1970s when Hank Peters, then the general manager, sounded out the idea of asking baseball officials if they'd let Baltimore have the league opener every year.

That way, Henneman said, the president would always have a nearby ballpark in which to throw out the season's first ball, and Oriole players would get a little bonus: After six weeks of spring training, they could come home and get settled in rather than embark on another trip.

The arrangement was never made formal, Henneman believed, because baseball hoped eventually to establish another Washington team. The birth of the Nationals in 2005 effectively put Baltimore on notice that its ride of home openers was coming to an end.

This year, the commissioner's office decided to grant Washington its first home Opening Day since 1971. The Nationals begin their season today with a 1:05 game against the Florida Marlins. (President Bush, who has thrown out Opening Day first pitches in four ballparks, will miss the event.)

Plans for the coming years are not final, but it seems clear that neither Baltimore nor Washington will enjoy exclusive rights to the Presidential Opener.

"We'll probably alternate between the cities," Feeney said.

Alternating might be fair, but for three decades, Baltimore fans got used to the pleasure of inaugurating each American League season here. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and lifelong O's fan who sees 70 games a year, has cherished that opportunity for 20 years.

"It's wonderful to go to the park and see a game with a clean slate," he said. "It's the end of winter, the start of a season, a new beginning. As they say, everybody's in first place; nobody's in last place."

A case in point was 1989. The Orioles looked like world-beaters in their first game, when Cal Ripken slammed a three-run homer off Boston's Roger Clemens - the only one he would ever hit off the Rocket - to spark a 5-4 win that triggered a horn-honking celebration all over town.

Though they would win a surprising 87 games and finish in second place that year, the team would never look as promising as on that shining April 2.

"That day, they sure looked like champions," said Rosenberg, who vividly recalls Ripken's shot disappearing over the left-field fence. "That's part of what makes [the home opener] special."

The O's weren't simply at home. For years, their opener was the only American League game played on the first day. If the Reds and Orioles both played that day, baseball usually timed the Reds contest to start a few minutes earlier, preserving Cincinnati's pride of place.

Fans and players hereabouts enjoyed their privilege.

A home opener "is a big deal," said Vince Bagli, a longtime Baltimore sports announcer. "The emotions are sky-high. You've got 161 games to play afterward, but you like to play that first one in front of your fans and win it. Sure, it gives you a little lift."

As expected, once the tradition took shape in Baltimore, the festivities often involved presidential appearances. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton threw out Opening Day first pitches here twice each.

They even made history. After doing the honors at Memorial Stadium 23 years ago today, Reagan became the first president to watch a game from the dugout. (The O's lost to LaMarr Hoyt and the White Sox, 5-2.) The first President Bush threw out the inaugural first pitch at Camden Yards when the ballpark opened in 1992. A year later, Clinton, like the elder Bush a southpaw, distinguished himself as the first commander in chief to make his toss from the pitcher's mound and get it all the way to the catcher.

During those years, a generation of Baltimore fans learned to enjoy a benefit they almost came to see as a birthright. Take Scott Foster of Fallston, who was practically born an Orioles rooter. His father, Steve, a state highway administrator, took him to his first game at Memorial Stadium before he turned 1. Other than in 1995, when a strike led the team to begin the season in Kansas City, Scott Foster has never missed an Orioles Opening Day.

"It's just always been that way," said the 18-year-old York College freshman who recalls the orange carpet and festivities at the first Camden Yards opener, which he saw at the age of 4.

Not anymore. After three games in Minnesota, the O's head to Yankee Stadium for three more, a notion that gives even team management pause. After all, it was general manager Mike Flanagan, then a left-handed pitcher, who started the Orioles' last officially scheduled road opener, in 1978, against a Milwaukee Brewers lineup he calls the toughest he ever faced. He was shellacked in an 11-3 loss.

"It was a three-day disaster," said Flanagan with a rueful laugh. "They scored 40 runs on us, and we got swept."

A generation later, Flanagan says he sees the O's first week as just another road trip. But even if the team is 6-0 by the time of their home opener April 9 against defending league champion Detroit - unlikely, given the strength of the Twins and Yankees - fans will be denied a pleasure they've grown used to: the delight of seeing a home team for which the possibilities of the season are, for a day anyway, unlimited.

When the Twins' Johan Santana makes his first pitch to Brian Roberts tonight, and Scott Foster settles in front of the TV with friends, the young O's fan expects a few withdrawal symptoms.

"When I got the schedule for this year," he said, "I thought, 'Opening Day on the road?' This just isn't an Orioles season."

But like any Opening Day, this one could augur something altogether new.

"I'm a true Orioles fan, but I have to admit, they've been in a rut the past few years," Foster said. "I hate to see this happen, but who knows? Maybe it'll change their luck."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

TONIGHT: ORIOLES SEASON OPENER

@Minnesota Twins, 7:05 p.m., MASN, 105.7 FM >>>>PG 1D

NEXT MONDAY: ORIOLES HOME OPENER

vs. Detroit Tigers, 3:05 p.m., Ch. 13, MASN, 105.7 FM

For interactive baseball cards, lineups and predictions, go to baltimoresun.com/orioles

AMERICA'S PASTIME

Presidential first pitches on Opening Days in Baltimore:

Ronald Reagan, April 2, 1984, in Orioles' 5-2 loss to the White Sox.

Ronald Reagan, April 7, 1986, in 3-2 loss to the Indians.

George H.W. Bush, April 3, 1989, in 5-4 win over the Red Sox.

George H.W. Bush, April 6, 1992, (to open Camden Yards) in 2-0 win over Cleveland.

Bill Clinton, April 5, 1993, (first president to pitch from the mound) in 7-4 loss to the Rangers.

Bill Clinton, April 2, 1996, in 4-2 win over the Royals.

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