- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

BALTIMORE It was Opening Day 1989, the Baltimore Orioles were coming off the worst season in franchise history and a player named Cal Ripken homered off Roger Clemens to help kick off an improbable year that turned the phrase "Why not?" into a season-long rallying cry.

Thirteen years later, the Orioles found themselves once again taking the field on Opening Day on the heels of a disastrous 98-loss season with a familiar face named Clemens on the mound for the opposition.

Ripken, though, was not in uniform. For the first time since 1982, the retired Iron Man watched with his family from a Camden Yards skybox while his replacement at third base, Tony Batista, came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth inning.

By the time Batista crossed home plate after launching a grand slam over the center-field fence the defining blow in Baltimore's 10-3 season-opening win over the New York Yankees the sellout crowd of 48,058 was on its feet applauding this new generation of Orioles players, including the man who embodied this franchise for the last 20 years.

"You don't replace Cal," designated hitter David Segui said. "He did what he did here, and no one will forget him. This is Cal's team, and it probably always will be."

Maybe so, but with Batista's hit, the Ripken era was in many ways finally put to rest as a city opened its arms to a new crop of ballplayers and celebrated a surprising opening victory that may leave some wondering "Why not?" all over again.

"It's encouraging any time you can beat a team like the Yankees. They're so good," said Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove, who saw his team thoroughly dominate the four-time defending American League champs. "But we can't lose sight of the fact that there are still 161 of these to go."

Indeed, if the Orioles need any reminder of how quickly things can change, they need only look back one year. On Opening Day 2001, Baltimore beat the Boston Red Sox and ace Pedro Martinez 2-1 in 10 innings only to be no-hit by Hideo Nomo two nights later en route to a 63-98 season.

But yesterday was not a time to dwell on the previous year or to worry about preseason predictions of a fifth-straight losing season. The standings in this morning's paper show Baltimore in first place.

"It means everything to beat the Yankees, especially when Clemens is throwing," said left fielder Melvin Mora, whose bases-clearing double in the fifth broke the game open. "But we've got to go one day at a time, little by little. If we keep doing the little things like we did today, we'll be fine."

The Orioles did several little things right yesterday, from rookie catcher Geronimo Gil throwing out two would-be basestealers to Mora swiping two of his own to Jay Gibbons executing a perfect hit-and-run in the fifth. But the highlight of the afternoon was Batista's big blow in the fourth inning.

Trailing 1-0 since the top of the first (when Derek Jeter stole third base and scored after Gil's throw sailed into the outfield), the Orioles finally put a dent into Clemens. Literally.

With one out, Segui rapped a high hopper up the middle that Clemens instinctively tried to snag with his bare hand. Bad idea the ball ricocheted toward shortstop, Segui beat it out for an infield single and the Yankees training staff rushed to the mound to check on Clemens.

The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner convinced the trainers and manager Joe Torre to keep him in the game, but he was clearly injured. Clemens proceeded to throw a wild pitch, then walked Jeff Conine and Gibbons to load the bases for Batista.

"It was obvious that the ball off the hand affected him," Hargrove said.

When Clemens left his first-pitch fastball to Batista belt-high over the plate, the Baltimore third baseman promptly launched it toward the deepest part of the ballpark in center field. By the time it landed just over the fence, 414 feet from home plate, the Orioles had themselves a 4-1 lead and Ripken was giving a standing ovation to his replacement.

"It was special," Batista said. "I enjoyed it. I think he enjoyed it, too."

Clemens came back out to start the fifth, but after issuing another pair of walks, a single and Mora's three-run double, the Rocket was yanked from the game, having surrendered eight runs with five walks in 4⅓ innings. He was later taken to the University of Maryland Hospital for X-rays, which came back negative.

The Orioles' 10-run splurge (they added two more in the eighth) was more than enough offensive support to make a winner out of Scott Erickson in his first start since July 25, 2000. Erickson, coming back from right elbow ligament replacement surgery, had trouble with his command (he walked five in six innings), but he allowed just one unearned run and three hits before leaving the game in the hands of four Baltimore relievers.

"Scotty did a great job," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "He kept his composure like he always has. He really battled for us."

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