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IT ALL COUNTS NOW: THOUGHTS ON FIRST 10 DAYS OF MLB SEASON + JACKIE ROBINSON DAY

IT ALL COUNTS NOW: THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST TEN DAYS OF THE MLB SEASON INCLUDING APRIL 15 JACKIE ROBINSON DEBUT DAY

I attended the Orioles home opener on Friday afternoon April 9 and was enough of a masochist to also go again on Saturday night April 10. Don’t think I will be attending many other Woeriole games in the near future. To quote Gertrude Stein a non-baseball loving Baltimorean by birth, “There is no there” about my beloved team that I fell in love with in the late 1960s/early 1970s when I taught there at Goucher College and later at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

I was predisposed to like the Orioles because starting in the 1960s they consistently beat the Yankees. In fact, until the team started to plunge to mediocrity and worse in the mid-1980s, they held a winning record over the Bronx Bombers. Not so anymore and worse there is no winning attitude associated with the franchise any more.

It was nice to see local icons Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell both throw out first balls on Opening Day and current coaches Terry Crowley and John Shelby did play on championship teams decades ago. But the team's 1-8 start to 2010 – including three excruciating losses and the booing of the new closer Michael Gonzalez during warm-ups at Opening Day even before he blew that game – is more indicative of recent times. It is their worst start since their 21-game losing streak to begin the 1988 season.

In 1988 the impatient then-owner Edward Bennett Williams fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. six games into that streak and replacement Frank Robinson was at the helm for the next sixteen losses. To give you a sense of how much Baltimore still loved the Orioles, nearly 50,000 fans came out to Memorial Stadium to welcome the team home from a road trip during that awful streak. Ultimately the Birds won a game or two on their way to a 108-loss season.

I can assure you that there won’t be a big crowd at Camden Yards to welcome home this current team from a road trip. Sadly, the biggest crowds will be when the Red Sox and Yankees come to town and turn the contests into home games for the visitors.

Being an Oriole fan these days IS a study in masochism so I will desist now and look at the brighter picture that there are competitive races ahead in all divisions and it is a long long season and that is why they play the game.

The four-hour marathon at Fenway on Sunday night April 4 that opened the season was a typical Yankee-Red Sox rouser. Veteran umpire and crew chief Joe West complained afterwards about the four-hour length of most Boston-New York games. It is a good point but the intensity of those head-to-head matchups of juggernauts almost makes it inevitable. When the Orioles were reasonably good, their games with the Yankees went on forever too.

What made April 4 an interesting night in sports was that in women’s basketball the Baylor Bears actually threw a little scare into the Connecticut Huskies before losing in the semi-finals to the female juggernaut from Storrs. Hadn’t seen much of the Division I Women’s Basketball season this year. It was too bad that having the stage for itself the following night after Duke’s thrilling victory over Butler in the men’s final, both UConn and Stanford delivered a clunker in the women’s final. On balance though it is good for any sport to have a dominant champion for other teams to shoot at.

Continuing with some basketball thoughts, I listened to the last half of the stirring Duke-Butler final on the radio. Kevin Cugler was a good play-by-play man and the commentary of former coaches Bill Raftery and John Thompson was incisive. Thompson kept asking Butler’s star forward Gordon Hayward to step up but he never did, thanks to the great defense of Duke’s Kyle Singler who also contributed offensively. I like the Blue Devils as much as I like the Yankees but this team was more likable and gritty than most of Coach K’s smug squads who often reek of entitlement.

BACK TO BASEBALL:
**It was going to be hard for Major League Baseball to improve on its 2009 Beacon Award winners Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby for the annual Civil Rights Game. Yet MLB came through again with the recent announcement that singer-actor-civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, tennis great Billie Jean King and Willie Mays will be honored during the Civil Rights Weekend culminating in the May 15th game between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals.

I was thrilled to be part of the 2009 festivities talking in the Queen City about Ohioan Branch Rickey’s commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity for all. It is especially meaningful for Billie Jean King to win the award in 2010 because she has definite roots in baseball. Her brother Randy Moffitt pitched in the major leagues for 12 years, mainly with the San Francisco Giants, and her father John Moffitt was a part-time scout with the Giants.

George Genovese, the scout who signed Randy, told me earlier this year that he remembered meeting Billie Jean at the Moffitt house after an injury had forced her to default at Wimbledon. “Mr. Genovese,” she told him, “when I get healthy I will win that tournament next year.” And win she did and win and win many times. PRESSURE IS A PRIVILEGE, the neatly titled book she wrote with Christine Brennan in 2008, is a great read with many words of wisdom about the competitive athletic life.

**On Thursday April 15 MLB will again be honoring the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Players on every team will wear his number 42. It may make life difficult for the official scorers and announcers but it will serve as a gesture of respect to the man whose courage and talent clearly served as a symbol for the civil rights movement that within the next 20 years fostered many changes for the better in the laws of the land regarding equality of opportunity.

During spring training last month in Arizona I taped an interview with Rick Rizzs of the Seattle Mariners radio team that will air as a pregame April 15 interview on KIRO before the Mariners afternoon game broadcast.

On Sunday April 18 at 1p at Long Island’s Argyle Field in Babylon, New York there will be a ceremony honoring the Cuban Giants black baseball team that during the 1880s was the first professional team of African-Americans. They took the name “Cuban Giants” because they were better able to play against white teams when thought of as Latin Americans instead of black Americans. A sad commentary on American racism that needs to be remembered and transformed by our informed awareness that the game of baseball is a wonderful antidote to prejudice.

Kudos should be given to the Mayor of Babylon Ralph Scordino, the Babylon Village historian Alice Zaruka and retired baseball scout Joe Delucca who spearheaded this long overdue recognition of the Cuban Giants.

Ciao for now and back to you before too long with thoughts on the sporting scene and occasional commentary on the music scene. Please remember those in the New York area there will be a memorial for the wonderful pianist-organist-life spirit Jane Jarvis – who played ballpark organ for both the Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets and was a widely recorded jazz artist – on Monday May 10th at 7p at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, East 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue.

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