BY SEAN REDMILES
There are some days of the year that are sacred. Birthdays are celebrations of the gift of life, anniversaries for the gift of love and religious holidays for the gift of spirituality. But for millions of devoted baseball fans, there is only one day that brings hope, comfort, love, spirituality, excitement and devotion all in one: opening day.
Across America thousands of fans pour into baseball stadiums and roar as their favorite players sprint out onto the field for the first time in six months. The fans drink beer, eat hot dogs and breathe deeply the first draught of spring air. On opening day, this baseball family comes together to share their joy for the return of baseball and the hope that this year will be the year their beloved team wins it all.
For fans of the Baltimore Orioles, this opening day came with more hope than any other within memory. As a life-long fan of the birds, I watched with wonder as the Orioles won close game after close game in 2012 to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
I cheered deliriously as they won a hair-raising wild card game against the Texas Rangers in Texas ,and I stood with tears in my eyes as I witnessed a crowd of 46,000 shake Camden Yards with their euphoria over a Game two victory against the hated Yankees.
Last year brought the excitement of another contending team and disappointment when they came up just short of the playoff, but 2014 holds more promise than any other season to date. General Manager Dan Duquette and Owner Peter Angelos finally opened the checkbook to purchase a high upside starting pitcher in Ubaldo Jimenez and an established slugger in Nelson Cruz.
The Orioles now have a lineup that from nearly top to bottom contains hitters capable of producing 20 home runs, including perennial 30 homerun hitters Chris Davis and Adam Jones and a starting rotation with the potential to keep them in games for the offense to produce.
Along with the high profile pickups came typical under the radar but no less genius moves by Duquette. The O’s traded DH Danny Valencia for David Lough, a speedy left fielder from Kansas City with incredible defense who hit .286 in 96 games last year.
They picked up Delmon Young, a once top prospect who has a career average of .303 to face the Lon Lesters and David Prices of the American League East. They also traded 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez for 25-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, a versatile, scrappy infielder who can play nearly every position and gives Manager Buck Showalter more options on a daily basis.
Taken together with a bevy of young talented arms on the verge of breaking the majors and the likely return of the dynamic young Manny Machado from a devastating injury, the birds of 2014 are the brightest hope for contention Orioles fans have seen in a long time.
Opening day at Camden Yards vs. the division rival Boston Red Sox was as perfect a start to the season as could be hoped.
The crowd was electric, standing up whenever the O’s were a strike away from ending the inning and screaming their approval at the series of excellent defensive plays displayed by the birds in the early innings. Opening day starter Chris Tillman did not come to the mound with his best stuff but gutted out 5 innings in which he allowed zero of 10 redsox in scoring position to score. His only run came on a Grady Sizemore homerun to deep center. Jon Lester dealt for seven innings but gave the go-ahead solo home run to newcomer Nelson, who rounded the bases to cries of “CRUUUUUUUUUZ” across the entire stadium.
In the bottom of the ninth, Tommy Hunter, the Orioles newly named closer, came to the mound for the save with the O’s up 2-1.
The crowd immediately gave him a huge ovation and stayed on their feet for the entire inning. Hunter hit his first batter, gave up a single to Dustin Pedroia and faced David Ortiz with one out and the tying run at second.
Hunter came through however, popping up David Ortiz for the second out of the inning and sending the record crowd of 46,457 into hysteria when he struck out Jackie Bradley Jr. looking to win the game.
As the crowd filtered out of the stadium on a memorable opening day, my dad, who I have gone to nearly every Orioles game with for 22 years, turned to me and said, “Today Sean, life is good.”