As soon as he saw it, Steve Stone knew what was in the package. It was his Cy Young Award, the higest honor is his pitching craft. After a winter's wait, Stone did not hide his glee. Like a kid on Christmas morning, he was in no mood to spare the ribbon or fold the wrapping paper.
Out came the lustrous plaque, the trophy of a lifetime, made of mahogany with a silver had holding a silver baseball. Suddenly, as he drank it all in, the 25-game winner's face went blank. Then Stone laughed. Softly, at first, then almost uncontrollably.
"They still don't know who I am," he told the Baltimore Orioles gathered around him. "They've sent me Steve Carlton's Cy Young plague.
"What do I have to do?" protested Stone. "At the All-Star Game banquet last summer, I was the starting pitcher, but a bunch of people mistook me for Carlton Fish's agent because I was sitting next to him on the dais. I told them, 'I promise you that Fisk will always stay with the Red Sox.'
"Then, in the offseason, an elementary school teacher brought her class over to me in a shopping center and said, 'My students recognized you. Could you give us a few autographs? You are Fuzzy Zoeller, aren't you?'
"But this is unbelievable."
"Pebbles, you've taught me something," cracked Mike Flanagan. "It's tough to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues in the same year."
"Look at it this way," said Jim Palmer. "If you keep this one, then win it again this season, you can be the only man to win the Cy Young Award playing under two different names.
"Anyway, you need these moments to humble you."
Stone couldn't stop mumbling. "Nobody knows me," growled the blithe fellow. "I really should get an American Express commercial out of this. 'When I take the mound, sometimes people don't know my name. So, I always carry this'."
There's no more jolly day in baseball than the first day. In almost every walk of life, even in others sports, the words "Report back to work" have a dismal ring after a long, sweet vacation. Only in baseball does the phrase "Camp opens today" bear connotations of delight, a general sense of renewal and reunion. The first day in pro football is primal agony, an apt symbol for the sport as the Birds gathered today to open the preseason, their convivial flocking was also an emblem of their game.
The sky was robin's egg blue above cloudless, windless, toasty 75-degree Miami Stadium today as the O's laughed and loped their way through the beneficent rites and gestures of this kindest, gentlest, most gregarious game. Manager Earl Weaver called his first team meeting. Instead of fire and brimstone, he said, "Excuse me, gentlemen, could I have your attention? . . . We know what we have to do, so, let's go do it."
Thus endeth the inspirational meassage.
"Everybody here?" asked Weaver, at which point Rick Dempsey made his entrance.
On the last day of last season, Flanagan and Palmer needled Dempsey about his short haircuts. "Betcha $100 you won't let your hair grow till spring," sadi Flanagan. "I'll match that," said Palmer. Soon, the kitty was $450.
All winter, Dempsey kept out of Oriole sight.
So, at Meeting I, Dempsey arrived with straggly, near-shoulder-length hair and a piratical bandanna around his head. Trembling and shaking like a strung-out junkie, he approached Weaver. "Hey, Skip," he said, "got any drugs?"
Only if you can hit .290 like so-and-so," chimed in Stone, using the name of an all-star catcher who has similar tastes in hair, bandannas and such. n
"Who's that guy?" asked Weaver, pointing at someone in an O's uniform taking calisthenics. "He ain't one of ours, is he? I never saw him before." t
"Must be ours," said a coach.
"Jeez, I remember the year that crazy Ross Grimsley showed up with a full beard, long hair and sunglasses. I walked past him three times saying to myself, 'Who the hell is the guy all my players are talking to?"
"And He'd won 1, games for me the year before."
"Grimsley looked just like a guerrila," said General Manager Hank Peters.
"Give the guy a break," said Weaver. "I never thought he was that ugly."
"That's guerrilla, not gorilla," said Peters, correcting the spelling.
"Oh . . . yeah," said Weaver. "Well, I'll go along with that."
This time, the interloper was just a player's friend. Weaver could relax. That's what he does best here. No question rankles him . . . yet.
Will his upcoming underwear commercial with Palmer make him a national ex symbol, too? "Probably," said Weaver, adding, "You mean I'm not already?"
Palmer has been getting the last word here with regularity. For years, Weaver has claimed that he tells time by Palmer's injuries -- "The Year of the Elbow, the Shoulder, and, the real doozie, the Mysterious Ulnar Nerve. tWho ever heard of an ulnar nerve? Only Palmer." Well, Weaver has had a nerve problem all witner that makes two fingers on his right hand tingle and throb. Weaver even considered surgery. His doctor, who later changed the diagnosis, told him, It's probably the ulnar nerve."
"Oh, God, no," cried Weaver. "Anything but the ulnar nerve."
"I have been sticking pins in the arm of that damn Earl Weaver voodoo doll at home ever since '74," grinned Palmer. "It took me seven years, but I got him. Finally, Earl knows what i've been going through."
Now, two O's walk around constantly shaking their right hands surreptitiously as though trying to wake it up. That's right, Palmer and Weaver.
February baseball has a special warmth, almost a coziness of camaraderie. Even Palmer, the Orioles' designated cynic, its compulsive truthteller, is not immune. Off the cuff, he says, "The record for wins in one season is 111 by the Indians in '54. This year, this team will break that record.That's my prediction. And I'm not kidding at all."
The sky is never so blue, so empty of clouds, wind and doubt as on the first day of baseball's spring.