BALTIMORE — At long last, at the corner taverns and restaurants from Federal Hill to Charles Village to Highlandtown, they threw open the windows and doors, pulled the outdoor tables out of storage and welcomed a pair of long-lost friends — sunshine and baseball. By mid-afternoon Monday, an entire city, with Oriole Park at Camden Yards at its center, had come to life in a way that only someplace in the midst of the simultaneous arrivals of spring and opening day can.
And when the Baltimore Orioles followed the pomp and ceremony with a hard-earned 2-1 victory over the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, a crowd of 46,685 filtered out of the stadium and into the Inner Harbor to ponder whether this team might be the sort that could still be playing meaningful games when the weather turns cold again.
“Spring and the first day of the season — it’s the start of something,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “A lot of emotion there.”
New left fielder Nelson Cruz introduced himself to Orioles fans with a tiebreaking solo homer in the seventh inning off Red Sox ace Jon Lester, and the bullpen navigated four scoreless innings to carry home the narrow victory. Right-hander Tommy Hunter, who graduated from middle reliever to closer this season, put the go-ahead runs on base in the ninth before striking out Jackie Bradley Jr. to end it.
“That was enjoyable,” Hunter said. “Our crowd was legit. I hope they come out like that for 80 more [home] games.”
Baltimore’s longest, bleakest winter in recent years included the first Ravens season without a playoff appearance since 2007, near-record snowfall totals (and a near-breaking-point number of school snow days) and, for the Orioles family, the deaths of a beloved former Gold Glove-winning outfielder (Paul Blair) and an equally beloved public relations director (Monica Barlow).
The city’s collective mood wasn’t helped by the Orioles staying largely on the sideline of the offseason talent market — reviving a familiar complaint about owner Peter Angelos’s chronic thriftiness — until, suddenly, well into spring training, the club snagged pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and Cruz for a total of $58 million.
By all measures, the Orioles are in the midst of an organizational renaissance, with an uncharacteristically stable management hierarchy — Showalter is in his fifth season, General Manager Dan Duquette in his third — and a championship window, to the extent such a thing can truly exist here, that is flung wide open.
Up and down the Orioles’ roster are all-star players in the primes of their careers. Right-hander Chris Tillman, who made the first opening day start of his career Monday, is 26. Jimenez, who will start the Orioles’ second game of the season Wednesday, is 30. First baseman Chris Davis, center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters — who combined to hit 108 homers in 2013 — are all 28. Shortstop J.J. Hardy is a young 31. Third baseman Manny Machado, on the disabled list following offseason knee surgery, is a mature 21.
The last time the Orioles had such a collection of in-their-prime and near-prime stars was probably the last great run the franchise produced: the 1996-97 squads that made it to the American League Championship Series in back-to-back seasons. It would be another 15 years before the franchise produced so much as another winning record.
Maybe it’s true that the Orioles’ window of opportunity is a narrow one. Hardy and right fielder Nick Markakis are free agents at the end of this season, with Wieters and Davis reaching free agency at the end of 2015. And the top-heavy AL East isn’t getting any easier any time soon.
But on Monday afternoon, at the end of a long winter — and the start of a season full of something resembling real, actual hope — it was enough for the people of Baltimore just to have the windows open at all.