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Eleven Orioles experience their first Opening Day vs. Yankees: 'It's a dream come true'

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Opening Day, with its pomp and ceremony, holds a significant place in the minds of both the players and the fans who fill the stadium to mark the beginning of the season. And on this year's Orioles team, there are a lot more players who experienced it at the major league level for the first time than years past.

On Thursday, 11 of the 25 Orioles in uniform at Yankee Stadium took part in their first major league Opening Day, a milestone in every young ballplayers' life that none will take for granted.

"Experiencing Opening Day at the big league level is huge not only for me, but for a lot of guys in this clubhouse," center fielder Cedric Mullins said. "There are guys who will be making their debuts on Opening Day. It's going to be a fun day for sure."

Mullins is one of four homegrown Orioles who are on the team's Opening Day roster for the first time, including right-handers David Hess and Jimmy Yacabonis and left-hander John Means, while left-hander Paul Fry debuted with the Orioles last year as well. Catcher Pedro Severino, infielder Renato Núñez, infielder Rio Ruiz, and outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. each have major league experience, but were up-and-down players at previous stops and never spent an Opening Day on the active roster before the Orioles gave them that chance Thursday.

And for Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, their first major league Opening Day marked their major league debuts, and that was special itself.

Here's a sampling of how some of the Orioles who experienced their first Opening Day regarded the experience as the day approached.

Cedric Mullins

As the first significant piece of the Orioles' youth movement to make it to the majors last year, and one of the only ones to actually stick in the major leagues for 2019, Mullins, 24, doesn't take his Opening Day assignment lightly.

Mullins, who grew up in Georgia, for years tried to find a way to get to Turner Field for an Atlanta Braves season opener. Thursday should mitigate that disappointment some.

"It's huge, the opportunity just to experience an Opening Day and be the one playing in it is amazing," Mullins said. "I'm just thinking back on the years, just wanting to be at an Opening Day game to watch it. That's hard enough. To actually be playing in one, that's awesome. It's indescribable, and I'm excited, simply put. ... I never made it to a Braves Opening Day. That was something I always wanted to do, and that's OK. I'll let that slide now that I get to play in one."

Drew Jackson

Jackson, 25, doesn't have to use Thursday as a fill-in for Opening Days he missed as a child — he went to Opening Day as often as possible to see his hometown San Francisco Giants, and the first he remembers was when what's now Oracle Park opened in 2000.

Jackson was 6 years old that day, but the memory sticks with him, just as it likely will for the 20 or so family members and friends at Yankee Stadium on Thursday for his first major league game.

"I remember how excited I got as a kid, and this will be that much better," Jackson said. "I know it's going to be high-energy. It's going to be a lot — probably way more than I expect — but I'm so excited for this. It's a dream come true. I have so many family and friends out there, so it should be quite the experience."

Richie Martin

Martin, 24, and Jackson don't have to room together anymore the way they did at spring training, but Martin will be experiencing everything Thursday for the first time alongside Jackson. Thursday’s starting shortstop knows that it'll be twice as much to soak in because he didn't have a midseason debut like many other players get.

Last year, 247 players made their major league debuts. Just seven came on Opening Day.

"It's different because a lot of times, guys get called up in the middle of the year. But this is going to be special. It's going to be Opening Day of the regular season, so I'm looking forward to that. This is a day I've dreamed of my whole life, and it's hard to put into words. I can probably tell you a little more how it's going to go afterwards."

David Hess

Several Orioles pitchers have enough experience under their belts for most days at the ballpark to be old hand, but that won't stop any of them from taking in the scene at Yankee Stadium. Especially for them, the day represents a mission accomplished of sorts.

"Looking at it, every year growing up, whether I was 10 years old or 20 years old, just thinking to myself how badly I wanted that to happen,” said Hess, 25. "For that to be a dream come true this year — this is a great group, with a lot of guys I came up through the minor leagues with and a lot of guys I got to know in spring training. I'm excited to share this time with them.”

Paul Fry

The baseball, of course, will be the focus come the actual first pitch. But there's so much more happening on Opening Day that's worth noting, even to the players themselves. Recently elected Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and that's just the start of it.

"I'll probably get goosebumps, for sure," said Fry, 26. "I think there will be a flyover, too. That will be really cool."

Jimmy Yacabonis

Starting with his debut in June 2017, Yacabonis has pitched in 26 major league games, made seven starts and been sent to the minors nine times. Making the Orioles roster for Opening Day this year was a checkpoint he wanted to hit in his career.

"It shows to me that the work that I put in in the offseason went toward something," said Yacabonis, 27. "It feels like I'm progressing. Last year, I didn't make the roster, and this year, I made it, so it shows I'm progressing and getting better each year. It's obviously one of my goals, too. One of the goals when you get drafted is to make it to the big leagues, then make the Opening Day roster, and then it's to stick. It's just checking them off the list, one by one."

John Means

Even counting the players who joined the Orioles earlier this week, few came from further off the radar to make the team than Means, 25, who was added in the last week of the 2018 season off his couch in Kansas City to pitch in a doubleheader. He ended up making the team this year with an impressive spring.

He wasn’t taking Thursday for granted at all.

"It's definitely a childhood dream," said Means, 25. "Yankee Stadium, as you're pulling up and you see it in the distance, you're like, ‘Wow. I made it here. Hopefully, I can make a career out of it — a good career.’ But it's just a childhood dream. I'm still kind of having an out-of-body experience. It doesn't really feel like I'm here, but at the same time, I'm excited."

Rio Ruiz

It sunk in for Ruiz, Thursday's starting third baseman, on Wednesday night when a family friend texted him reminding him how few people get the chance to do what he did at Yankee Stadium.

"It's everything, man. ... It really put a big smile on my face, and it hasn't stopped," said Ruiz, 24. "I'm just really looking forward to getting going."

Dwight Smith Jr.

Few have been with the Orioles for less time than Smith, 26, who was acquired in a trade from the Toronto Blue Jays in early March and batted second in manager Brandon Hyde's first lineup.

He knows he has a lot of peers in taking in the scene Thursday at Yankee Stadium.

"It's awesome," Smith said. "For a lot of guys, it's our first Opening Day, and it's a great experience. What better place than the pinnacle of baseball, Yankee Stadium? This is amazing. It's everything you could wish for."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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