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On Orioles’ opening day, possibility in the air

Published in The Baltimore Sun, April 4, 2011

Fifty years ago this Opening Day, hope and possibility were as palpable as the gentle warmth of the spring sun. A few months earlier, during a bitterly cold and snow-filled winter, a youthful and charismatic president had taken office, announcing that the American torch had been passed to a new generation and challenging us all to enlist in the struggle against the common enemies of humanity — tyranny, poverty, disease and war. The words hung in the air like inscriptions for the future we could forge: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

That April, we would witness the first American manned space mission that would launch us into the final frontier and join us in the space race component of a deepening and dangerous Cold War. A new age was truly upon us, and all things — tragic and triumphant — seemed possible.

And so it was with baseball and the beginning of what would be a season to remember. For the first time, the American League expanded from eight to 10 teams and from a 154 to a 162 game season. The Los Angeles Angels joined as a West Coast beachhead to counter the National League’s recent uprooting of the Dodgers and Giants to growing California. And with the departure of the Senators from Washington across the Mississippi to become the Twins in Minnesota, a new Senators franchise was created so that the nation’s capital would not be deprived of the national pastime. Teams were traveling by plane now, and West Coast road trips would become part of every team’s schedule.

In Baltimore, the Orioles were coming off a season in which they first achieved contender status, battling the fabled Yankees deep into September before finishing second. They had done so with a mostly youthful team that played with fundamental excellence and a maturity beyond their years. The team’s motto soon became, “It can be done in ’61.” One member of that team had toiled in the Dodgers’ minor league system for eight years. His reputation as a home run hitter brought Jim Gentile to Baltimore, where he had an All Star season in 1960. “Diamond Jim” was about to have a colossal season. Throughout the spring and summer of 1961, he hit home runs at a pace that had kids on every sandlot in town pretending to be Jim Gentile. His swing was vicious. He smashed pitches, smashed bats after striking out, and led the Orioles to 95 wins, their best season to that point (although in the end, only good enough for third place). He would finish with 46 home runs and a staggering 141 runs batted in.

At the same time, the nation became enthralled as the Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle carried out an assault on the game’s most hallowed record — Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. Maris would be emotionally wrecked by the pressure. Mantle would maintain the “oh shucks” Oklahoma demeanor that helped make him the game’s most recognized star. In the end, it would be Maris who would break the record on the season’s last day, and then have his achievement diminished with an asterisk noting that it had been accomplished in a season expanded by eight games.

Maris would also win the league RBI championship with 142 — but then again, he did not. In fact, a 76-year-old won a share of that RBI championship, but he did it 49 years after his prolific season. It was discovered that Maris had been erroneously awarded one RBI that had actually scored on an error. The oversight was corrected last year, leaving Maris tied with Jim Gentile for tops in the league that immortal season. Only baseball, with its deep roots in history and devotion to generational statistical comparison, has the mystical ability to produce such a time-shifting event.

And so we begin yet another year of baseball. After enduring more than a decade of losing seasons, often punctuated by painful late season collapses, Orioles fans were, at long last, blessed with baseball’s balm of hope last year. During what was shaping up to be the most miserable in a string of disappointing seasons, Manager Buck Showalter arrived in August to induce one of the most remarkable turnarounds in baseball history. He took over a team with a 32-73 record and went 34-23 the rest of the way, including a winning record against its formidable division rivals, recording more wins in 57 games than the team had won in its first 105. Some credit is due to leadoff catalyst Brian Roberts returning to health, as did others. Nevertheless, under Mr. Showalter, the Orioles, particularly their young pitchers, performed for two months with a professionalism and swagger not seen in these parts for some time.

Fans have received further sustenance from off-season moves that have added Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy to the starting lineup. But, as is often the case, the success of this year’s team rests, in great part, with the ability of the young pitching staff to collectively take a huge step forward.

Still, there is a buzz for this season that is reminiscent of half a century ago. There is hope. And that is the thing that makes all things possible, especially after a cold and snow-filled winter. Like when a generation once stood on the precipice of space and held the possibility of changing the world.