- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

BALTIMORE

On Sunday, Mike Hargrove talked about how much he was looking forward to Opening Day. "I wish every day was Opening Day," he said.

The Orioles lost Opening Day yesterday. I think Hargrove will get his wish.

The Orioles squandered a strong pitching performance from Mike Mussina, losing to the Cleveland Indians 4-1 before a sold out crowd of 46,902 at Camden Yards, the second largest Opening Day crowd in the history of the ballpark. Hargrove was warmly received with a big ovation in pre-game introductions.

"I hope they are still cheering in September," he said.

They may not even be watching by September.

Even though it was just the first in a 162-game season, it was a game the Orioles needed to win for a lot of reasons one of them cited by Hargrove himself.

"We played well," he said several times in postgame interviews.

I'm not sure I agree with that, but if you do, that means that despite playing "well," despite playing at home and despite holding a team that averaged six runs a game last year to just four runs, with your best pitcher on the mound, they lost.

If they can't win a game with all of those factors in their favor, what does that mean when Pat Rapp, Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro are on the mound against the likes of the Indians, the Yankees, the Rangers … heck even the Kansas City Royals.

It means that this will be a long season. That's all you heard yesterday at Camden Yards a long season, in the clubhouse as well as out of it. One player said, "A lot of things are going to have to go right for us this year, or else we've got a long road ahead of us."

And that was before they lost yesterday.

You heard it so much that you wondered if it was the team's 2000 slogan.

Actually, on the front of the Orioles media guide is the slogan "The Tradition Continues," with the year 1954 in front of it and 2000 in back of it.

They were 54-100 in 1954. The tradition continues.

They won't be that bad this year, but it may be more painful to watch than 1954 was, because of the amount of money spent to put together this team a $77 million payroll.

Take number 88 for example. Other players failed to deliver in key situations yesterday B.J. Surhoff struck out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, and there wasn't a whole lot the Orioles could do about Omar Vizquel's sensational diving catch in the bottom of the seventh on a blooper hit by Delino DeShields, a play that saved at least one run. The game turned on that play, and the Indians coming back in the top of the eighth inning to score two runs to extend their lead to 4-1.

But the game could have turned back in the Orioles' favor in the bottom of the eighth inning, in a situation which is the very reason why they pay Albert Belle $13 million a year. And they pay him that money to deliver in April, when they need it, not in August, when they are 10 games out of the race for the playoffs.

Belle went 0-for-3 yesterday with a walk, striking out twice, including in the bottom of the eighth, when Surhoff led off with a double with the Orioles down 4-1. They are now facing the Indians bullpen not starter Bartolo Colon with the leadoff runner on second, nobody out, and your $13 million hitter coming to the plate. It is a rally in the making.

Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel brings in reliever Paul Shuey to pitch to Belle. Facing a pitcher coming into the game, Belle swings at the first pitch Shuey throws. Belle fouls it back for strike one. He looks at strike two. He fouls another pitch into the right-field seats, and then gets caught on a check swing for strike three.

The rally, for all intents and purposes, is dead.

So are the Orioles, if they get off to a poor start. Last year they went 6-16 in April and never recovered. They made a second-half run, going 41-27 after the All-Star break, but faded at the end and lost eight of their last 12 games.

They are simply too old to come from behind. The Orioles' only shot at a respectable season is to have a good start and hope to play .500 ball for the rest of the year.

Otherwise, it will be … well, you know what kind of season it will be.

Long.

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