- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

BALTIMORE | The symbolism was almost impossible to miss.

As Matt Wieters strode to the plate in the second inning Friday night during a 38-second standing ovation from the Camden Yards crowd, a rainbow stretched over the right-field stands and beyond the B&O; Warehouse.

If Friday afternoon’s rainstorm had cut much more into the Baltimore Orioles’ game with the Detroit Tigers and there had been puddles pockmarking the outfield grass, most of the fans who packed Camden Yards for the catcher’s big league debut probably would’ve thought Wieters could have glided across them.

It didn’t matter that Wieters went 0-for-4 in Baltimore’s 7-2 win. The 23-year-old, whom the Orioles took with the fifth pick of the 2007 draft, arrived in Baltimore and played his first major league game amid a sea of positivity rarely seen in the ballpark since the Orioles were a playoff contender in the late 1990s.

Boosted by 15,000 tickets sold after the Orioles announced Tuesday that Wieters would make his debut, Friday’s crowd of 42,704 was Baltimore’s second-largest of the season behind an Opening Day sellout, when 48,607 fans turned out largely to boo Mark Teixeira, the Severna Park, Md., native who signed with the Yankees in December.

It was a different vibe Friday, with the long-struggling franchise finally getting a player to build around, perhaps for the first time since Cal Ripken Jr. retired. The sea of orange roared with approval when Wieters cleanly fielded Josh Anderson’s bunt for the first out of the game. They chanted his name after his first at-bat and before his final at-bat in the eighth.

“I think that’s commendable for the interest, that everybody wants to latch on and identify [with him],” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. “That’s great. We needed that. It’s been a long time coming for the fans and for the city.”

Wieters’ call-up was the most significant move in an infusion of young talent; pitchers Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken and David Hernandez have all made their major league debuts this year.

“I’ve never really been on a team that had a plan in place where they had three or four guys at the minor league level they were looking to phase in over time,” said catcher Gregg Zaun, who became the backup with Wieters’ arrival. “We saw those kids working in spring training, and slowly but surely they’re all starting to make their way to the big leagues, which is exactly how they drew it up. … This is a club that’s getting younger by the day. It’s got to be exciting for the city of Baltimore and the organization.”

The order of the day Friday was to keep the fervor surrounding Wieters to a minimum. Trembley batted him seventh, partially to reassure Wieters that he doesn’t have to come in and carry a lineup that ranks fourth in the American League in home runs.

Though Trembley said he knows the switch-hitting catcher won’t be in that spot once he gains some experience, it’s probably where Wieters will be most of this year.

“I make my own expectations. Expectations of the fans and the other personnel, it’s nice to have that support, and that’s where those kinds of goals come in,” Wieters said. “But you’ve just got to go out and play your hardest, and you’ll make your own expectations.”

Wieters acknowledged that he’s more concerned with refining his defensive abilities in the major leagues than his bat, which made him Baseball America’s minor league player of the year last year after he hit .355 with a .454 on-base percentage, 27 homers and 91 RBI across two levels.

He’s 6-foot-5, which makes him one of the largest catchers in the game, and though scouts haven’t expressed many long-term concerns about Wieters’ defense, one AL executive was borderline giddy before the season about the prospect of facing Wieters.

“His receiving skills aren’t that good,” the executive said. “We’re going to steal 40 bases off him, but he can hit. The question is, is the defense going to be bad enough that they have to move him?”

On a euphoric night at Camden Yards, those questions - and Wieters’ 0-for-4 night - were the least of anyone’s worries. Mostly, it mattered that the face of the Orioles’ youth movement had finally arrived.

“I had a little bit of an idea [how much attention there would be],” Wieters said. “You get the voice mails and the text messages from everybody, I think, you’ve ever met in your life, so it’s something that you start to see how big it is.

“But at the same time, once that first pitch is thrown, it’s time to play baseball.”

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