Orioles opener: Could this be the year of the long shot?

In Baltimore tonight it might be difficult to smell the hot dogs through the television screen as the Orioles the take on the Tampa Bay Rays in Florida, but the start of the major league baseball season still gets the blood up, clouding judgment, improving our mood.

Cheered by a strong finish to last year's season, Oriole fans hope that the steady hand and steely judgment of skipper Buck Showalter will steer the team away from the rocky shoals of 13 consecutive losing seasons.

Armed with new sluggers, like Vladimir Guerrero a veteran with an impressive hitting resume and a fearsome nickname — "Vlad" — and backups like Jake Fox who socked a record 10 home runs in spring training, the lineup should have some pop. Three of the four moving parts of the infield — first basemen base, shortstop and third sacker — have been replaced, and the holdover, second baseman Brian Roberts, is a primo player when his back isn't bothering him, a condition many fans can identify with. The outfield manned by Nick "solid citizen" Markakis, Adam " I can simultaneously blow bubbles and snag fly balls" Jones, and Luke " I promise not to talk politics" Scott, looks solid if not spectacular.

As the current World Champion San Francisco Giants showed last year, strong pitching is the key to success. The Orioles hurlers are questionable. The team has plenty of young arms, but pitching, like an asparagus patch, takes years to develop. Whether or not this is the year of the rotation comes to fruition will largely determine how the team finishes.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, already one of the best places in baseball to watch a game, has been gussied up in the off season. Seats in the upper deck and club deck have been widened, railings that obstructed views there have been moved, a "flight deck" that encourages fans to mill around as they watch the game — much as many fans already do in the right field flag court — has been added on the club level. A new concessionaire, Delaware North Sportservice, is serving new (and often high-calorie) eats, including a pretzel shaped like an "O" and a hot dog topped with pit beef. Maybe that is why they widened the seats.

While having a good time at the ballpark will help fill these seats — the renovations shrank the seating capacity by 2,319 — winning will do even more. Given the team's uncertain pitching and the tough American League East neighborhood that the Orioles labor in, experts predict that the team will finish, at best, in the middle of the pack.

Bookmakers put the odds on the Orioles winning the American League pennant at 35-1, and 75-1 to win the World Series. But this could be the year of the long shot. The odds of the Virginia Commonwealth basketball team making it to the Final Four were 820-1. Yet they made it to Houston. Then there is what is happening on the world stage. Despotic regimes are toppling all over the Middle East. Who says, at least on opening day, that it can't happen in the American League East, too?

Major League Baseball is not all green grass and blue skies. The perjury trial of former San Francisco Giants home run hitter Barry Bonds has produced ugly reminders of steroid use and what it does to an athlete's body. Yet opening day, and even more so, Monday afternoon's home opener between Orioles and the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards, somehow bring out bursts of sunny, if questionable, optimism.

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