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Despite loss, home opener special for first-timers at Camden Yards

Michael Craig Winters with his twin sons, Sean, front left, and Gregory, rear right.
Michael Craig Winters with his twin sons, Sean, front left, and Gregory, rear right. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Michael Craig Winters waited until the last possible moment to pop the grand surprise on his twin sons, Sean and Gregory.

The boys were dressing for another Friday of pre-kindergarten in their suburban Philadelphia home when dad popped in and said, "Let's skip school today."

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Instead, he told the 5-year-old Orioles fans they were headed to Baltimore for their first home opener — and his, too. They'd call out with a case of "bird flu."

"They had no clue," Winters said. "There was a lot of very happy screaming and running around."

Opening Day is a time of renewal for all involved — a day when every fan, player and team in the sport carries hopes for a joyous year ahead. But the feeling is particularly sweet the first time around, as fans and players find themselves at the heart of a festive afternoon unlike any other on the baseball calendar.

Everyone spent the morning worrying that rain would wipe out the show and how long the lines might be with new security measures in place. Instead, Orioles fans should've fretted over the Toronto Blue Jays, who clubbed the home team 12-5 before a sellout crowd of 45,936 at Camden Yards.

Nonetheless, it was a day to remember for all sorts of home-opener newbies, from the Winters twins to 24-year old Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman.

"This is my first time running out on the orange carpet, so that's kind of a cool thing in itself," Gausman said. "I'm pretty pumped."

The baby-faced pitcher grew up in Colorado, but never attended a Rockies opener. So this was a true first in his baseball life. Asked what he'd be thinking as he jogged out during pre-game introductions, he said: "Try not to make a fool out of yourself. That's about it."

Gausman pitched crucial innings during the playoffs last year. But he said there's a genuine satisfaction to starting the season in the majors rather than having to work his way up from the minors.

"Buck always says the best 25 guys are going to come north, so you feel like you're one of those guys he can compete with day in and day out," Gausman said. "It definitely gives you that confidence."

Last weekend, Gausman proposed to his girlfriend, Taylor North, and she said yes. He conceded that might be a bigger milestone than a mere home opener. "Depends on who you ask," he said.

For Judi and Allen Cohen of Crofton, Friday was a three-generation celebration. They've taken their children to numerous Orioles openers over the years. And on Friday, grandchildren Avery, Ethan and Brayden joined the family legacy.

"It's the best," said Allen Cohen, as the grandkids tossed baseballs in the children's play area at Camden Yards.

His son, Matt, recalled the anticipation for Opening Day when he was a kid. "Especially toward the end of winter," the Ellicott City resident said. "Baseball meant nice weather was around the corner."

He said his daughter, Avery, "doesn't quite get the whole winning and losing thing yet." But at age 5, she does keep score.

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Kids weren't the only fans experiencing a home opener for the first time. Madison Kafer of Bel Air is a senior at Maryland. She celebrated her 21st birthday during a playoff game against the Kansas City Royals last fall, having her first legal drink at the ballpark.

But she'd never been to a home opener before Friday. "I just never had the money or the time off," she said.

She and her friend, Lauren Campion, wore big smiles as they clutched freshly garnished hot dogs in the lower deck. They'd spent the early afternoon sipping drinks at the Camden Club.

"Just walking around the city, it's great to see everyone in orange," Kafer said. "The day has definitely lived up to the hype."

After he searched far and wide for a parking spot and steered his boys through the new metal detectors required by Major League Baseball (which, for the record, didn't generate endless lines), a harried Winters reached Eutaw Street midway through the first inning.

Perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. He and his sons missed the Toronto Blue Jays battering Orioles starter Bud Norris for four runs in the top of the first inning. And they made it just in time to watch Adam Jones deposit a home run into the leftfield stands.

Jones is a favorite of both boys.

Winters, 36, grew up in Fallston, rooting for the Orioles of the 1980s. "Ripken to Ripken to Murray, still the best double play combination in baseball," he recalled happily.

He attended many games at Memorial Stadium with his father but never the opener. As an adult, he moved to Bensalem, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. But even though his kids are growing up in Philadelphia Phillies country, he's raising them as Orioles fans.

Sean and Gregory attended a game at Camden Yards before their first birthday. They begin every morning during the season by asking if the Orioles won the night before. Last October, they learned how sad daddy got when his team was swept out of the playoffs.

Inspired by the team's success, Winters bought a partial season-ticket plan in the offseason. He lucked out in the lottery for home-opener tickets, setting up his perfect surprise for the kids.

"Daddy, guess what?" Sean said after the family made it inside the gates Friday.

"What?" Winters replied.

"Let's go O's!" his son yelled.

Winters is just happy his boys are learning the game in a stretch when the Orioles are winning again.

"It's just like it was when I was a kid," he said. "The Orioles won the World Series when I was 5, so maybe that will happen for them."

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