An Allegany Radio Corporation Sports Column By Mike Burke

Taking in Opening Day with presidents

MIKE BURKE
Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Every Opening Day is different; every one is special. Some stay with you longer than others and some are as distant a memory as that last Iron City you poured down your throat on a chill Opening Night at Three Rivers Stadium. Most Opening Days, however, stay with you forever.

From 1981 until 1997, my friends and I made our annual pilgrimage to Baltimore for the Orioles’ Opening Day, first at Memorial Stadium on East 33rd Street and then, beginning in 1992, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore.

And yes, I am aware that pilgrimage means religious journey, holy expedition, crusade and mission among other things, because I Googled it to make sure I am using the right word. I am.

I’ve been to Opening Day in four stadiums and ballparks — Memorial Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, Oriole Park and Nationals Park. I’ve seen the Presidential First Pitch thrown by four presidents on Opening Day — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

While it wasn’t on Opening Day, in 1992 I also saw President Bill Mitchell throw the first pitch prior to an Orioles-Detroit Tigers afternoon game at Camden Yards. At least I thought it was President Bill Mitchell. Turns out it was some guy named Dave Kovic. But wait … In reality it was the actor Kevin Kline playing the role of Dave Kovic, who was summoned to impersonate ailing President Mitchell in the wonderful movie “Dave.”

The shot took about 10 takes and Kline brought his fastball to Orioles catcher Jeff Tackett consistently in the mid 80s. Yes, they had the radar gun on him and they even had actors playing Secret Service stationed in the press box. Having previously been in the press box when the president was on site, it was pretty impressive how realistic it seemed and, as I said, it is a fantastic movie.

Anyway, getting back to Opening Day, and while we’re on the subject of Secret Service, the 1989 Opening Day at Memorial Stadium will always be one to remember, as the Orioles hosted the Boston Red Sox for what proved to be a preview of things to come in the incredible Baltimore summer of “Why Not?”

The Orioles were coming off their horrid 1988 season, which they began by losing the first 21 games. In front of a packed house in the ’89 opener, they beat the Sawx and Roger Clemens, 5-4, in 11 innings on a Craig Worthington bloop single that safely dropped in Boston’s two-man outfield.

That the Orioles would not start the season 0-21 was the most important thing, and Baltimore went nuts for the day and, as it turns out, for the rest of the summer as the young Orioles took the pennant chase to the final weekend of the season.

During the opener, our seats were in the front row of the left-field upper deck, which would have been perfect seats for a Colts game. They were good seats for baseball too, but the trouble was at least a couple hundred fans that day had to walk in front of us to get to their seats, which did not please us at all.

Naturally, we said some things that we probably shouldn’t have said and complained in a manner in which we probably shouldn’t have complained, particularly when we found out why fan traffic had been detoured our way.

President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak was President George H.W. Bush’s special guest that day, which we knew. What we did not know until later, when we were watching postgame highlights at our favorite bar on Greenmount Avenue, the Irish Derby (favorite until later that summer when they told us to leave and to never return) was that presidents Mubarak and Bush were sitting directly below us in the Memorial Stadium football press box. We know this because we saw us sitting directly above them on the news afterward.

Needless to say, we had trouble catching our collective breath when we came to the realization of the situation because we had not exactly been exercising the proper discretion during the course of the afternoon, while, unbeknownst to us, being under the watchful eye and ear of the Secret Service as well as the snipers (did I mention the snipers?) that were stationed in the light towers surrounding the playing field.

I’d like to be able to say that day taught us a lesson and that we began to use the proper discretion during future visits. But it didn’t, and we didn’t. As I said, we got kicked out of the Irish Derby later that summer.

Another great Opening Day memory came in 1982 when the Orioles clubbed the Kansas City Royals (who always seemed to be the Opening Day opponent then) by a score of 13-5.

It was a gorgeous afternoon at Memorial Stadium and Cal Ripken Jr., in his first Opening Day, went 3 for 5 with a home run, while The Man, Eddie Murray, hit a grand slam. The game was a springboard to a thrilling season in Earl Weaver’s (first and actual) final year as the manager of the Orioles, and I am happy to report we all behaved. But only because my mother was there with us.

The Opening Day that likely had the biggest impact here at home came in 2006. That’s when the Orioles beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 9-7, to begin what would be another losing season in what had become a long line of losing seasons.

What made it significant, though, was it was the first Opening Day for Cumberland’s Sam Perlozzo as the Orioles manager and he was joined on-staff by his best friend, pitching coach Leo Mazzone, of Westernport.

It was just a thrill to be there to see Sam introduced to a warm welcome as manager of the Orioles and stand proudly with his team during the pregame ceremonies.

Of course, we knew then what we knew in midseason 2005 when Sam was named interim manager — that it was going to end badly since the Orioles organization was in such dreadful straits. And it did end badly 69 games into the following season. But seeing Sam Perlozzo have the moment he deserved and had worked so hard for his entire life made Opening Day 2006 one of my favorites.

Other great Opening Day memories include the Nationals’ home opener in 2010 when President Obama threw the first pitch, marking the 100-year anniversary of Presidential Ceremonial Pitches.

It was the day after Easter, the Nats played the Philadelphia Phillies and our old friend Sam Perlozzo, who was then the third-base coach for the Phils, got my buddy Ed and me some good seats.

The Nationals weren’t very good yet, so the entire stadium was abuzz, not over the ballgame, but over the NFL trade that had taken place the night before and sent quarterback Donovan McNabb from Philadelphia to Washington. That the place was crawling with Philadelphia fans as well made the entire day even more eventful.

Being invited to the famous Blue Marucci Opening Day Extravaganza, via motor coach, was eventful as well. It must have been, because there was very little of it I could even remember the next day. Including the year. Those guys were serious players, but I will always be grateful for the invitation and for their kindness and hospitality.

That Opening Day is the best day of any year for many of us is understood. That we are unable to celebrate it in the way we have become accustomed is as it should be for now. We have to work together to understand what we’re up against and do everything we are supposed to do, beginning with being kind to each other and taking care of each other.

Once we do that and make it through this, it’s going to be the most wonderful feeling in the world to understand and appreciate that then, every day truly will be Opening Day.

Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@alleganyradio.comand follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT