BALTIMORE — The last time the Detroit Tigers came to Camden Yards, more than 1,000 Baltimore Orioles fans marched through and out of the ballpark in a protest of the franchise’s nine straight losing seasons under owner Peter Angelos.
And yesterday, eight months later, there were still remnants of that rally as someone handed out some leftover protest signs from the Sept. 21 march in front of a bar outside the ballpark. One fan carried a “Free the Birds” sign in with him for the Orioles’ 2007 home opener against the Tigers.
By the end of the third inning, that sign was probably in a trash can somewhere.
One game does not erase nine years of losing, but it sure felt like the past better days of Camden Yards yesterday as the Orioles outplayed the defending AL champion Tigers 6-2 before a fired-up crowd of 48,159, the second-largest Opening Day crowd in the history of the 15-year-old ballpark.
After the Orioles won two out of three in New York against the Yankees, another impressive win yesterday against a good team (usually the Orioles’ bogus April wins come against Tampa Bay) seemed to recreate at least a glimmer of the electricity Camden Yards used to produce from the day the doors opened in 1992 to the Orioles’ last winning season in 1997.
“I felt that,” manager Sam Perlozzo said. “But we are still 3-4 and have only played a week’s worth of baseball. We feel like we are better, but we have to get it done on the field. If we do that, we know things will turn around after that.”
Before the game, Perlozzo laid out the challenge facing the entire organization.
“We have to play sound, good baseball and get the fans back on our side,” he said. “We have something to prove to them.”
They began making their case yesterday with timely hitting and aggressive baserunning, scoring four in the third inning. Kevin Millar led off with a home run. Corey Patterson followed with a bunt single and stolen base, and Brian Roberts scored him on a single. Melvin Mora drove in Roberts with a double, and Miguel Tejada brought Mora home with a single through the infield. With Baltimore leading 4-1, it was game, set and match the way 25-year-old Daniel Cabrera was pitching.
The 6-foot-7 Dominican was scary. He was not the wild, hard-throwing temperamental kid who has been up and down between the minors and the majors the past three seasons. He was cool, calm and in total command, allowing seven hits and striking out five in 72/3 innings. The pitcher who walked seven batters in his first start of 2006 walked none yesterday and didn’t go to three balls on a hitter until the eighth inning. Since spring training, this kid has been consistently under control.
That could make all the difference in the world for this team, which has, when healthy, a good major league lineup and a strengthened bullpen. If Cabrera — who might have more potential than Erik Bedard, the Orioles’ Cy Young candidate — can pitch like this and if lefty Adam Loewen delivers as promised — he outpitched former Orioles ace Mike Mussina last week in a 6-4 win over the Yankees — well, fans won’t see many people standing outside the ballpark passing out “Free the Birds” signs anymore.
“If [Cabrera] can put three good starts together at the start of the season, there is no telling what he can do,” Perlozzo said.
Plenty of Orioles teams have wound up pretenders since 1997, looking good for 120 games or casting delusions with a good start. This doesn’t have the feel of one of those. This felt a little bit like those spunky teams that at least competed for the AL East title in the final month of the season when this ballpark first opened — when the fans here embraced the team rather than cursed it.
Walking around the Orioles’ clubhouse after the game, there was no one to ask whether it felt a little bit like Camden Yards of old — because there was not a single soul who was here during those good times, not even a coach. But there were signs of those better times all around. Cal Ripken threw out the first pitch for yesterday’s home opener, but that one was too obvious.
After the game, Mike Devereaux walked through the tunnel underneath Camden Yards, the place he used to set on fire with his spectacular catches in center field when the ballpark opened. After nine losing seasons and an all-time low 2.15 million in attendance last year, it seemed as if this place had turned into ashes and rubble. But yesterday the Orioles stoked up some embers.