At its best, opening day is pomp and a presidential first pitch, crisp spring sunshine and a record crowd, goofy slapstick play and new nuggets of baseball lore. Above all, it's a reminder of why the seven months of the year when the national pastime is played every day are so much better than the five months when it's not.
This one had it all.
The biggest regular-season crowd in the 33-year history of the Baltimore Orioles saw Ronald Reagan throw perhaps the wildest first pitch in history. The toasty warm throng, sitting in glorious 70-degree sunshine, also saw a cracking good game -- full of silly plays and sophisticated late-inning strategy -- which was eventually won, 6-4, by the Cleveland Indians.
Until Monday afternoon, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only president who had been credited with a WP -- wild pitch. On April 16, 1940, FDR wound up, aimed at the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators players standing in front of his box -- and conked Washington Post photographer Irving Schlossenberg right in the camera.
Usually, the pitcher's mound is 60 feet six inches from home plate. Reagan had only about half that distance to negotiate to reach Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey as the pair stood -- encircled by a hundred members of the media -- near the third-base coaches box. The combination of a full windup and a suit coat, however, may have contributed to a fast ball so erratic that Dempsey, leaping high in the air, could not come within a yard of the offering -- which deviated extremely far to the President's right.
Reagan, who was greeted with cheers and chants of "Ronnie, Ronnie" from the right-field upper deck (Section 34), showed not the least embarrassment, asked for a new ball, fired it with just as much mustard and this time gave Dempsey a knee-high strike.
"The first throw he said he was afraid he would hit one of the reporters," recounted Dempsey. "I said, 'Go ahead. That's no loss.' He doesn't look at it that way. He needs all the votes."
Reagan sat on the Orioles bench for two innings as players asked for autographs and Manager Earl Weaver -- his favorite lucky seats occupied by owner Edward Bennett Williams, Reagan and commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth -- paced the far end of the dugout. "I was sweatin' out Flanny," grumbled Weaver afterward, meaning starting pitcher Mike Flanagan, who allowed five runs in just two innings.
Before the game, Weaver was stoically resigned to the home dugout confusion that surrounds a presidential visit. "What are you going to do?" Weaver said, phoning Indians Manager Pat Corrales to apologize in advance for the delays that awaited. "And there's no way you can say anything. Not if you want to eat apple pie . . .
"Hey, that's how it's supposed to be," he added with tepid enthusiasm.
"We're oh for three with presidents," Williams teased Reagan before the game.
"Yes, but when I came in 1983 to the first game of the World Series , you ended up winning it all," said Reagan, according to bystander Ueberroth, who took notes on a napkin for posterity.
The Oriole most at home with the general presidential chaos was Dempsey, that son of vaudevillians who loves any chance to ham. "I told him, 'If I was hitting ninth instead of eighth, we'd have more time to talk about Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi,' " said Dempsey. "He said something about Qaddafi I can't repeat. If I repeated it, I'd have to have Secret Service protection."
How many words? Dempsey was asked.
"Thirteen words," said Dempsey. "And the last one was a beauty. One had four letters, but there was an 's' on the end."
While watching the game, Reagan, who broadcast Chicago Cubs games on the radio for five years in the 1930s, told a story about former Pittsburgh player George (Catfish) Metkovich, who appeared in a movie with Reagan. "Metkovich was a big, mean-looking guy whose one scene was to turn around and argue with the umpire," recalled Ueberroth. Reagan then imitated Metkovich who, with the camera rolling, turned to the umpire and said in a ultrapolite Caspar Milquetoast voice, "Well, I didn't think that looked very much like a strike."
Last time Reagan sat on the Orioles' opening-day bench in 1984, he made footnote-to-history news by ordering $8 worth of hotdogs from a vendor, then paying him with a $5 bill.
As is their wont, the Orioles, trailing by 5-0 when Reagan left, played far better when not under presidential scrutiny. Fred Lynn jumped above the fence to rob Brook Jacoby of a home run. Rich Bordi allowed only one run in six long-relief innings. And new Oriole Jackie Gutierrez made three excellent defensive robberies at third base.
The last-place Indians, anxious no doubt to establish that they are still the Indians, let the Orioles back in the game with three errors in one inning which led to two free runs.
By the bottom of the eighth, the once-sleepy game had reached a climax that had the crowd of 52,292 standing and stomping. Bases loaded, two outs, just two runs behind. Dempsey at bat.
"This is one day you don't want to get embarrassed -- not in front of 50,000 people," Weaver said. "You don't want all that good work in Florida to go down the drain. We made a ballgame out of it when it started to look like we might get blown out. Remember that 13-0 opening-day game we lost in Milwaukee? If it had been like that, we wouldn't have had 15,000 left at the end."
Instead, everybody stayed to root and second-guess, just as they will all summer. Should Weaver have pinch-hit John Stefero or Larry Sheets for Dempsey against Ernie Camacho? After all, Dempsey is three for 46 in such bases-loaded, two-out spots in his career.
Dempsey popped out.
Nobody seemed to care too much.
That just leaves 161 more games in the old red-brick ballyard to scream at, to think along with and to enjoy to the last out of. The president of the United States probably won't be back. But the others will.