The Joe Altobelli era began today with a parachutist dressed in a Baltimore Orioles mascot's uniform jumping from an airplane with the first ball of opening day in his hand.
The black-and-orange Bird, who'd been landing squarely on the pitcher's mound day after day in practice, was caught by a sudden wind shift and blown toward Memorial Stadium's left field bleachers.
Thanks to some desperate midcourse corrections, the plummeting fowl managed to avoid a close encounter with the light towers and miss the entire stadium. As team owner Edward Bennett Williams, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and other dignitaries watched from the mound, mouths agape and hands empty, the ball-bearing Bird disappeared into the parking lot.
That summed up opening day for the Orioles. Murphy's Law applied with a vengeance as everything that could go wrong did go wrong in a 7-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals before 51,889 extremely quiet fans.
Brooks Robinson threw out the first ball and bounced it 10 feet short of home plate.
The Kansas City pennant waving above the grandstand spelled the visitors' nickname thus: "Royaes." It's tough to misspell a word in letters three feet high.
When the Orioles announced they were changing the seventh-inning-stretch song from John Denver's "Country Boy" to a brand-new theme, "That Magic Feeling," the second-largest crowd in Orioles' history booed so loudly that General Manager Hank Peters said, "I thought they were going to storm us . . . The public has spoken . . . John Denver should be very happy tonight."
The Orioles aren't.
"Looks like a rebuilding year," joked Williams.
The Royals, seldom given to the home run, put three balls in the bleachers--George Brett, Willie Aikens and Jerry Martin doing the dishonors. The generous Orioles aided the Royals' cause by donating three unearned runs.
Dan Ford, attempting a basket catch of a routine fly in the first inning, played the ball with his elbow, allowing the first run of the American League season. A two-out error by Cal Ripken Jr. in the seventh opened the way for RBI hits by Amos Otis and Hal McRae off reliever Storm Davis.
Jim Palmer, proving that little has changed with the departure of Earl Weaver, scratched himself from this starting assignment three days ago, complaining of lower back problems. Palmer's replacement, Dennis Martinez, got infatuated with his changeup and became a loser after Brett and Aikens put his slow pitches in the cheap seats.
Larry Gura, who has the best career ERA of any AL pitcher against the Orioles (1.92 in 22 starts), was typically mystifying, permitting five hits in seven innings of speed-changing, corner-nipping work. Back-to-back doubles by Ford and Ripken in the first, and an RBI single by Eddie Murray in the sixth, were the extent of the Orioles' offense.
As though by diabolical dispensation, Gura was followed by Dan Quisenberry, who baffles the Orioles most. In four seasons, Baltimore has scored off him in one inning. The Orioles would have made a dramatic comeback if weak ground balls counted as runs.
"This just wasn't our day in any way," said Peters, in a chipper mood. "Obviously, we can't win without Earl (Weaver). What other conclusion could you draw?
"We've been winning on opening day and then going into a swoon," said Peters, aware that the Orioles have beaten the Royals, 5-3 and 13-5, here on the last two opening days. "Maybe now we'll reel off some wins."
Altobelli was asked if he'd remember this day--his first as Baltimore manager--as long as he lived. "I plan to start forgetting it in about an hour," he said.
Asked if he'd been compared to Earl Weaver, Altobelli answered to the effect that he hadn't, at least not for the previous several minutes.
"I've been compared to worse people than Earl," said Altobelli.
"Name one," said a Baltimore wise guy. Altobelli started laughing and couldn't stop.
On a balmy 59-degree day in which two vital rookies--John Shelby and Leo Hernandez--each went zero for four, the Orioles seemed almost oblivious to their goofy loss. Except for Ken Singleton's killing a pair of two-on rallies with a strikeout and a double-play grounder while hitting right-handed, they saw no scary signs.
By contrast, they noticed Hernandez made an excellent backhand stop and throw on his only defensive chance. They noticed two potential big innings were defused when smashes by Hernandez and Gary Roenicke that could have been doubles disappeared into Brett's glove.
They noticed how Ford, after his sun-field error and the torrent of boos that followed, played an excellent game with a single, double, two runs scored and a hustling dash to first on a routine grounder that prompted a throwing error.
"Last year was the worst, the most aggravating year of my life in baseball, even worse than Little League when you cry after you strike out . . . I want to erase a few opinions about Dan Ford," said Ford.
"Joe smiles a little more than Earl. I've talked to Joe more already than I did to Earl all last year. Joe told me, 'You're going to be the right fielder. Just get back to your form.' That's all I wanted to hear . . . I know a .235 hitter can't play every day."
Also back in form was Brett who, after closing spring training in a two-for-32 slump, had a double in the first inning and a two-run homer in the third that broke a 1-1 tie. Brett perhaps epitomized the pleasure of this opening day.
"I woke up at 4 this morning. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark," he said. "I didn't wake up at 4 in the morning once in Florida to go to Fort Myers."