Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn't light up the scoreboard Sunday, but with no interceptions and a wonderfully improvised touchdown scamper, the rookie sent Baltimoreans home chanting his name. But a look back at Baltimore sports history suggests that fans shouldn't get too high or low based on Flacco's solid debut against the Cincinnati Bengals. Plenty of all-time greats, from John Unitas to Jim Palmer (two innings of relief duty in a 12-9 loss) to Eddie Murray (a single in a loss to the Texas Rangers) failed to cause much of a stir in their first games.
Bad start, fine finish
On the debut front at least, Flacco has Unitas beat.
What did Johnny U. do in his first game? He relieved starter George Shaw, who had torn up his knee early in the fourth game of the 1956 season. The Golden Arm's first professional pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Chicago Bears defensive back J.C. Caroline. A series of fumbles and miscues followed as the Colts fell, 58-27. Obscured by the awfulness was Unitas' first touchdown pass, a 36-yarder to Jim Mutscheller.
OK, so how about the next-most-famous Baltimore quarterback, Bert Jones? Jones came in as a highly touted gunslinger from LSU and earned the starting nod for the 1973 season opener at Cleveland. He completed six of 22 passes for 56 yards as the Colts lost, 24-14. Jones did throw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Cotton Speyrer but started only four more games for a 4-10 team.
Good start, but then ...
Conversely, athletes who performed spectacularly in their Baltimore debuts did not necessarily go on to great careers. Colts running back Randy McMillan rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the 1981 opener, a 29-28 win at New England. He gained only 451 yards and one touchdown the rest of the season. The Colts won one more game.
Former Orioles third baseman Todd Cruz, who died last week, homered and drove in six runs in his first game after being acquired from the Seattle Mariners in 1983. He added just two homers and 21 RBIs in 218 at-bats the rest of the year and was out of baseball after the 1984 season.
Former No. 1 overall pick Ben McDonald had Orioles fans dreaming of multiple Cy Young Awards when he tossed nine shutout innings in his first start. A fine career followed, but McDonald never won more than 14 games in a season for the Orioles.
A hint of what was to come
Some Baltimore greats debuted auspiciously.
Unitas' fellow Colts rookie, Lenny Moore, caught a touchdown pass in the first game of the 1956 season.
Ray Lewis gave Ravens fans a strong hint of what was to come when he played his first game at Memorial Stadium in 1996. The linebacker waved his arms to exhort cheers, pumped his fist after big plays and led the team in solo tackles with seven. Oh, and he picked off a pass in the end zone to help secure a 19-14 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Younger fans might forget that Baltimore ever had a pro basketball team. But the city's greatest hoops talent, Earl Monroe, scored 22 points and handed out five assists in his Baltimore Bullets debut in 1967. The next day's Sun noted that the "loosey-goosey" was already his team's most popular performer.
Frank Robinson homered in his 1966 Orioles debut, beginning a dominant MVP season that ended with the club's first world championship.
Brooks Robinson went 2-for-4 with an RBI against the Washington Senators in his first game. He was hitless in the rest of his September 1955 cup of coffee and didn't establish himself as a regular until 1958.
Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr. had a successful debut that was completely unreflective of his career. He didn't play an inning in the field or come to bat against the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 10, 1981. Instead, the man never known as a speedster pinch ran for Ken Singleton and scored the winning run in the 12th inning. Ripken went 5-for-39 with no runs scored or RBIs the rest of that season before emerging as Rookie of the Year in 1982.
So what does it all mean?
One game is nice, but it usually takes a few months or years to glean a performer's true nature. Asked about great debuts, Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, remembered Unitas' evolution.
The first game Gibbons attended was Unitas' home opener against the Detroit Lions in 1957.
"There was a buzz swirling around Memorial Stadium much like there was yesterday for Flacco," Gibbons remembered. "And Unitas, like Flacco, in his first-ever season opener before a home crowd, did not disappoint. He masterfully led his hosses to a 34-14 victory, a kind of official ushering in of the Unitas era."
Bad as it was, Unitas' debut was already long forgotten.
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