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Opening Day Memories Last A Lifetime For Former Orioles

April 3, 2019
Throughout his 19-year career, Jim Palmer took the ball six times for the Baltimore Orioles on Opening Day, tied with fellow Hall of Famer Mike Mussina for the most in franchise history. 

One game that particularly stands out is a 1-0 victory against the Detroit Tigers April 10, 1975. Palmer threw a complete game, outdueling right-hander Joe Coleman, and the Orioles wound up finishing the season 90-69, 4.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

Two years later, Palmer pitched 10 innings in a 2-1 loss to the Texas Rangers. Rookie center fielder Larry Harlow misjudged a fly ball that led to the winning run. It was the only Opening Day start that Palmer lost. Amazingly, that game lasted just two hours and 34 minutes. 

But those memories last a lifetime. 

"Opening Day is the harbinger of spring. Everything starts over again," Palmer said. "It's an exciting time. You want to get off on the right foot." 

Other players have different recollections of the festive day. 

As Mike Bordick was about to traverse the orange carpet at Camden Yards during introductions for Opening Day in 1997, one ominous thought crossed his mind: don't trip. 

Bordick flawlessly navigated the long stretch of rug and secured his place in a lineup that finished 98-64, becoming the sixth club in MLB history to win the division by going wire-to-wire. 

"Running down that orange carpet was an incredible feeling," Bordick said. "It's like a dream. There's this incredible amount of anxiety because it's Opening Day. You put all that time into spring training, and then boom, there is this huge amount of hoopla. That year, in my mind, I thought this was going to be the best team in baseball. Opening Day is one of the best days in all of sports."

Following last season's 47-115 finish, the Orioles overhauled the franchise, hiring a new general manager in Mike Elias and a new manager in Brandon Hyde. 

The team took a progressive approach with the addition of Sig Mejdal to head the analytics department. The commitment to analytics and international scouting -- areas where the Orioles have lagged behind other clubs in recent years -- have provided some long-term optimism for the franchise. 

Bordick has been impressed by the positive attitude of the new coaching staff throughout spring training. 

"There is just a ton of optimism," said Bordick, who's entering his eighth season as an analyst on MASN and doubles as an instructor in the organization. "This team needed that mental adjustment to get out of that rut." 

Ben McDonald, selected by the Orioles as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 MLB Draft, fondly remembers the first game at Camden Yards April 6, 1992. On that day, McDonald watched from the dugout as Rick Sutcliffe was masterful, throwing nine innings in a 2-0 victory against the Cleveland Indians. 

"I didn't pitch, so I wasn't in that so-called zone," McDonald said. "I loved pitching at old Memorial [Stadium] because it was more of a pitcher's ballpark than Camden Yards. But when you got to sit back and watch Sutcliffe open it all up against the Cleveland Indians in a new ballpark and throw a shutout, and a couple of days later I throw a shutout too, that really stands out in my mind."

While the Orioles likely won't be competitive this season, McDonald got a sense of the excitement surrounding the team at spring training in Sarasota, Fla. He said the new coaching staff and the competition among the younger players for roster spots has brought a new energy to the clubhouse. 

"I love what Mike Elias is doing," said McDonald, who's entering his fourth year as analyst on the Orioles Radio Network. "Brandon Hyde is very positive in his approach. They are trying to evaluate as much talent as they can. Years ago in spring training, there was only a handful of spots available on the 25-man roster. That's not the case this year. If you're a young guy, you couldn't ask for a better situation." 

Former catcher Rick Dempsey spent parts of 12 seasons in Baltimore. He was a member of the franchise's last World Series championship team in 1983, which had a hero's welcome in the opener the following year. 

From parachutists to jets flying over the stadium, the first day of baseball is always a spectacle. 

"Opening Day in Baltimore has to be the best in baseball," Dempsey said. "The festivities to this day are still the best I've ever seen. They really go all out, and that's why every fan in Baltimore wants an Opening Day ticket. It's a lot of fun. Baltimore is a special place on Opening Day."

The Orioles were mostly competitive throughout the 1980s until the mid-1990s, and that created even more excitement for the fans who were anticipating the beginning of another successful season. This season, that anticipation will focus mostly on how some of the team's younger players develop deep into the season.

"When I made the ballclub in 1965, nobody knew I would eventually be headed to the Hall of Fame," said Palmer, a longtime television analyst for the Orioles. "I was just a young guy who could throw in the upper 90s. I had a curveball but not much of a changeup. No slider yet. But I got the opportunity. That's what 2019 is. It's an opportunity to see if these guys can perform at the big league level."

The Orioles' new emphasis on using analytics reminds Dempsey of his days with the club under manager Earl Weaver.

"I like the analytics of the game and the things they come up with," said Dempsey, an analyst on MASN's "O's Xtra" pre- and postgame show. "The difference in my day was that was Earl Weaver's approach. If a certain hitter had success against the fastball, then he advised us to stay away from that at critical points of the game. We had a pretty analytical approach to winning. Instead of a computer telling us what to do, we had Earl Weaver."  

Dave Johnson pitched for the Orioles from 1989-1991. He was part of the last team to play at Memorial Stadium. Johnson pitched the home opener in 1990, picking up the win in a 4-2 victory against the Tigers. 

Johnson has watched the spectacle of Opening Day evolve throughout the years. 

"In my two Opening Days in '90 and '91, one I was pitching and one I was not, they didn't do the celebration and running down the carpet and all of that stuff they do now," Johnson said. "It was a little more subdued back then. It's more of an event now. No question about that." 

Johnson said the club is moving in the right direction under Elias. However, he was quick to point out that even with an emphasis on analytics, the players still have to perform.

"In the end, you still need good players to use the analytics," said Johnson, an analyst for the Orioles Radio Network. "The Orioles are saying we need to include every possible thing we can to be better. But it still comes down to having good talent."

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles

Issue 252: March 2019 

Originally published March 15, 2019