Opening Day in Baltimore is a special day.
Not only is it a sign that warm weather is right around the corner and that people are ready to go outside after being stuck indoors for the past five months, it also means that baseball is back from its long winter hibernation. It’s a day when everyone is an O’s fan and is proud to show their allegiance, no matter how awful the team was the year before.
Growing up in the suburbs, Opening Day for me was a day typically filled with jealousy watching random classmates take the day off because their parents had tickets to the game, followed by disappointment that the game was mostly over by the time I’d get home from school and flip on the television, and culminating in programs or other tokens from the game a week later from my grandmother, who always seemed to find a way to attend the game.
As I got older, there were occasional years when I got to see a good portion of the game on TV or see something momentous occur that would stick in my mind many years later.
I can still vividly recall Cal Ripken’s shot to left field off of Roger Clemens in 1989 to kick off the “Why Not?” season, as well as the Red Baron’s christening of Camden Yards, when Rick Sutcliffe went the distance and mowed down the Indians in 1992 in an otherwise uneventful game.
A third Opening Day will always hold a special place in my heart, though — Opening Day 2004. That was the year that the angst of my youth was washed away when a friend offered me free tickets to the game courtesy of the owners of a Boston Street establishment that he tended to frequent. Today marks the 15-year anniversary of that very first Opening Day game that I attended, and being a lifelong Orioles fan (and baseball fan in general), it was a momentous occasion for the fan inside me.
It was so momentous, I’ve mostly forgotten it. Time and the hectic society that we live in will do that to one’s mind. In the 15 years since then, I’ve gotten married, had kids, made strides in my professional career and had my priorities completely rearranged from that moment in time when I was living the 20-something bachelor’s life in Brewers Hill.
I remember Opening Day 2004 being a Sunday night game of the week on ESPN, which allowed my friends and me time to pregame in a packed (what used to be) California Tortilla across from the stadium. It was a little chilly before the game and it got only colder as the night went on — and, of course, I didn’t dress appropriately.
Believe it or not, the revelry of the day and 45,000-plus fans being crammed together in one place didn’t warm things up as much as one would expect. The game featured the new-look Orioles, fresh off their signings of Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez, going up against Boston, coming off of one of the most agonizing playoff defeats in baseball history (Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, also known as the Aaron Bleepin’ Boone game).
On the mound for the Orioles was Sidney Ponson, somehow back with us again after we unloaded him to San Francisco. For Boston, it was the one and only Pedro Martinez, featuring a new Oscar Gamble-esque hairstyle, in what would prove to be his last year in Boston, as well as the end of his prime years.
Our seats were in the lower level and down the first base line, providing us a perfect view of the action. There was an electricity in the air that I had not felt at an Orioles game in a long time, probably because the team was going into Year 5 of its 14-year funk.
I remember Lopez welcoming himself to Baltimore by hitting a home run to left, and Tejada getting a couple of hits; little did anyone in the stadium know that he was about to have a season even better than the MVP season he had had only two years earlier.
I also remember Martinez wound up striking out only a few batters and looking nothing like his normal dominant self or anything like the pitcher that I had seen a few years earlier who struck out 15 Orioles in one game. I also remember the cold getting to me by the seventh or eighth inning and leaving to go home to watch B.J. Ryan close out the game for the win.
That night, the Red Sox looked nothing like the cast of characters that would come together to break the Curse of the Bambino six-plus months later. And, that’s about it. The rest of the game, and the night for that matter, is a blur.
I may not remember every little aspect of my first Opening Day, but since then I’ve made plenty of other Opening Day memories to make up for it by managing to find a way to go every year since 2004. All of the games are kind of a blur themselves and run together, but there are some moments of Opening Days past that stick out in my mind.
There’s Nelson Cruz hitting the game-winning home run that landed a few rows in front of me and my father in 2014; getting my first, and only, foul ball in 2013 since it happened to land a few seats down from me and roll in my direction; squinting through the sun from my center-field perch to see Adam Jones hit the walkoff winner last year; watching the Blue Jays hammer us the year after the O’s won the division; getting rained on every 20 minutes or so to the point that I gave up and went home after watching two innings in 2016; watching CC Sabathia and Barry Zito get destroyed by offensively inferior O’s teams; and my wife purchasing the most expensive stadium blanket ever in 2007 since she was cold (we still have the blanket in our family room and use it every night if we can find what the kids did with it).
Mostly, though, what I remember is all the fun I’ve had taking the day off work every year to rendezvous and catch up with old friends I don’t get to see very often anymore, drink a few brews, and take in a ballgame uninterrupted by the demands of a child or requests to watch anything but baseball.
Today is going to be no different.
When I was a kid, I never thought I’d ever get to go to Opening Day. It seemed like you had to know somebody in order to get a ticket to attend. It’s funny how 14 straight years of losing changes things. Even though that was followed by a six-year renaissance, the team hasn’t fully recovered attendance-wise from the lost years of the aughts.
What I’m trying to say is, if you’re a kid out there reading this thinking you’ll never get to experience Opening Day like I once was, don’t fret, your day will come. Mine sure did.
Guest contributor Bruce Voelker, 42, is a lifelong Orioles fan and seven-year season ticket holder. Born in Baltimore, he’s followed the team through its few ups and many downs during his lifetime. Residing in Baltimore County, he still follows the team when he can, but always sets aside everything for Opening Day. He’ll be at the game today, rooting for the O’s.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.