Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Ode to Opening Day

For Baltimore baseball fans, Opening Day conjures up a myriad of sentiments and sensations that tug close to the heart and delve deep into the mind. It also signals the restart of the day-to-day rituals associated with following our home team Orioles. Like getting up each morning, coffee, cream and sugar, to pour over yesterday’s line score and where we are in the standings, which spills over to a string of mental probes centered on our prospects for the next game up. Can the starting pitcher get into the seventh? Will the GM call up the Double-A hotshot who’s been ripping it up a Bowie? Will the return of the cartoon bird bring about a magical return to our winning ways (how’d that one slip in there?). Is the left-fielder really fast enough to bat leadoff? And on and on it goes, every day, for six months. Morning to night. The daily ritual of baseball fandom.

But Opening Day also means the smell of cut grass, of fathers and sons, side-by-side, year after year. Of playing catch, the iconic crucible of horsehide pounding leather. And getting out of school early and feeling special. And wearing that old Orioles warm-up jacket, and being proud it still almost fits. And remembering other home openers, from the first time you walked up the ramp and saw the perfectly manicured green and brown diamond in 1954, to the sunny April 1st day when the wind chill was so severe they called the game and all the media at first took it for an April Fools joke. 

But mostly Opening Day is about renewal; the real start of Spring, when we look forward with hope to the new season, while at the same time remembering and sensing all that came before, all that got us to this moment in time. Baltimoreans have a long tradition of Orioles’ home openers that dates back to 1882, the year the team took its name. Since then they’ve played in the American Association, the National League, the International League and the American League, but play they have, establishing one of the great legacies in all of sport.

And for Baltimore baseball fans, the startup of yet another campaign brings all those years and all those team, and all their fans, and all those memories, together to make for one hell of an orange and black smorgasborg!

Happy Opening Day, Baltimore!

Mike Gibbons
Executive Director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

For this Bird fan, Hope Springs Eternal

Every year around this time, baseball fans begin evaluating their team’s chances for the fast-approaching regular season, and –in turn- predicting their place in the standings, a post-season appearance, or, even a championship! Here in Baltimore, most fans are far more pessimistic than otherwise, and for good reason. That’s what 14 straight losing seasons does.

But this fan, for one, predicts that things will start to turn for the better in 2012, and that’s because pitching is the name of this game, and I am really starting to believe that this years’ Birds might be a whole lot better than anyone is anticipating. And because history, every once in a while, repeats itself.

Here’s what I’m getting to: in 1960, the team’s 7th year in the league, our Orioles enjoyed their first-ever pennant chase. They went into mid-September challenging the Yankees for first place supremacy, and even swept three from New York here in Baltimore before folding down the stretch. They were able to make that run primarily on the good arms of a very young pitching staff, nicknamed the “Baby Birds.”

Guided by veterans like Skinny Brown and Hoyt Wilhelm, five young pitchers, Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada, Jack Fisher, Milt Pappas and Jerry Walker propelled Baltimore to 89 wins, a second place finish, and a league-low 3.54 ERA. Their average age…21!

Which brings me to my optimism over this year’s installment of Baltimore Orioles baseball. Over this past off-season, new GM Dan Duquette’s top priority was loading up with enough arms to give manager Buck Showalter some real competition for starting sports and relievers. From where I’m watching, the plan looks like it just might be working. Through Monday night’s 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh, Showalter’s hurlers have held the opposition to an ERA just under 3.00, the fourth lowest in MLB this spring!

Can this carry over into the regular season and all those games against American League East opponents? Certainly not, but I think this year’s pitching corps is markedly better than the 2011 group, and if pitching is the name of the game, then might we not be in for a pleasant surprise?

I think so. Just call me mister optimistic. Let’s revisit this in September and see if history, indeed, can repeat itself!

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.