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Awaiting Baseball's Opening Day March 29 + A Salute to UMBC

Any player or fan who doesn’t feel a special tingle at the prospect of Opening Day should be in another line of business or fandom.

In 2018 that all 30 MLB teams open on the same very early day, Thursday Mar 29. Reportedly the players wanted this adjustment in the latest collective bargaining agreement to allow for more off-days during the season.

I have no problem with this change though I feel for Cincinnati that used to have Opening Day all to itself in honor of the Cincinnati Red Stockings’s great 1869 team.

My Orioles just surprised people by signing former Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb to a lucrative four-year deal for nearly $60 million. Nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery and coming off a solid 2017 season, Cobb will solidify a rotation that was the worst in baseball last year and the worst in the Orioles’ proud history (once they emerged in 1960 out of the carcass of the St. Louis Browns.)

I’m not into season predictions and fortunately don’t have to make them as part of my job. I’ve always been a “playing meaningful games in September” kinda guy. If Cobb
is healthy, he can solidify an all-right handed rotation with youngsters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman at the top along with another free agent acquisition Andrew Cashner, and former semi-ace Chris Tillman coming off a horrible 2017.

I fell in love with the Orioles in 1970 - Earl Weaver’s only World Series-winning season - 1960 through the 1983 World Series championship season. Then the late owner Edward Bennett Williams started getting impatient and dark times set in.

I’ll never forget sitting next to him by pure chance at old Memorial Stadium in 1986 when he started grousing about Eddie Murray’s lack of production. “I’m paying $3.5 million for that man,” pointing at first base, “and I’m not getting any return,” I recall EBW saying.

About a week later he started going public with his criticism and at the end of the 1988 season he traded Murray to the Dodgers for journeymen pitchers Brian Holton and Ken Howell and infielder Juan Bell whose only claim to fame was that he was Toronto slugger George Bell’s brother. (At least the Orioles did turn Howell into outfielder Phil Bradley who played well in orange and black but then was unnecessarily traded for Ron Kittle).

The Murray trade was one of if not the darkest moment in Orioles history. The other one was the suicide of Mike Flanagan, an Oriole Cy Young award-winner, general manager, broadcaster, and great wit whose genuine humor masked his inner turmoil.

Though Manny Machado’s pending free agency after this season remains a dark cloud hanging over Baltimore, the pitching should be improved. And if Chris Davis’s bat and glove return to optimum form, hope may have returned to Charm City for another competitive season.

One last note on Baltimore - I was thrilled with #16 seed UMBC’s shocking dispatching of number one overall seed Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament. I taught American Studies at UMBC in the early 1970s and introduced with my dear friend and colleague Tot Woolston one of the first college classes on “Sports and American Culture.”

UMBC, which stands for University of Maryland Baltimore County (and not what some students called You Must Be Crazy), is a fine academic institution. Under the long-term leadership of president Freeman Hrabowski III, it has made its mark as a leading math and science school.

Hrabowski, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has been featured on "60 Minutes" and other media outlets for shepherding the Meyerhoff scholarship program that encourages minorities to excel in science and math. And that they do.
The school has also won plaudits for its nationally-ranked chess team.

UMBC had another great moment of recognition this past weekend. The Paul Taylor Dance Company honored its former dancer Liz Walton and UMBC dance professor at its Saturday shows. It added to its wonderful array of pieces a special memorial performance of "Aureole" in which she starred and performed with legendary Rudolf Nureyev.

The exciting company of Paul Taylor, a former swimmer at Syracuse University, ends its NYC run on Sun March 25 but keep your eyes open for appearances in your community. Their piece "Piazzolla Caldera," danced to the music of the late great Argentinian tango-influenced composer, continues to resound in my marrow.

Let's give it up for the UMBC Retrievers and their many creative achievements!

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Reverie While Waiting Out Rain Delay before Start of Orioles-Yankees AL Division Series

I’ve been an Oriole fan for over 40 years and have suffered quietly if painfully during the last 15 years of the Birds’ under-.500 futility. The 2012 season has been a reawakening of hope in Baltimore and among the diaspora of intense fans like yours truly.

Universally picked for either last or the next-to-last rung of the tough AL East, these Birds managed by BUCK SHOWALTER have been over .500 all season, quite an accomplishment given their recent past. And they caught fire in early August and became a worthy contender when two unusual moves worked like a charm on the Orioles lineup and defense.

NATE MCLOUTH, a former All-Star outfielder with the Pirates whose career had nose-dived since 2009, was installed as the left fielder. And 20 year-old shortstop of the future MANNY MACHADO came up from Double A Bowie to become a rock-steady and often spectacular third baseman though he had only played two games at that position in the minor leagues. What had been a truly horrible Oriole defense became one of the best if not the best in the league.

Both McLouth and Machado contributed heavily with the bat, too. I was at Machado’s second home game at Camden Yards on August 9 and all he did was belt his first two home runs. Where once the chants of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” for retired Hall of Fame slugger EDDIE MURRAY rang throughout Baltimore, now I could hear the beginning of a new chant for “Manny, Manny, Manny.” I even heard a fan in the bathroom singing the words “Manny, Manny” to the 1950s pop hit, “Volare.”

Speaking of Murray, the onetime reclusive first baseman was one of six retired Orioles, all Hall of Famers, to be honored with sculptures by local artist TOBY MENDEZ that will be permanently displayed beyond the center field fence at Camden Yards.

There is no doubt in my mind that the beginning of the long years of gloom in Birdland began when owner EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS insisted on the trade of Murray after the 1988 season. After the Orioles’ last World Series triumph in 1983, the “Oriole Way” of patient development through the minor leagues and discreet free agent acquistion was replaced by the Indiscriminate Free Agent Fix that never works but owners almost always succumb to.

Murray was not to blame for the decline in pitching and defense and intelligent hitting that afflicted Baltimore after the 1983 World Series year but the impatient Williams was battling a terminal cancer that would soon claim him. Though the Orioles surprisingly contended in 1989, the year after the Murray trade to the Dodgers for three less than memorable players, it was not a team made for durable consistency and it quickly fell back into mediocrity.

Murray did return near the end of his career to hit his 500th home run in Oriole garb but a great chance to have a team built around the solid play on both sides of the ball of Murray and CAL RIPKEN JR had been lost.

Happily, 2012 has been a year of both resurrection on the field and remembrance of past glory. Like Murray Cal Jr was honored with his statue this season as were FRANK ROBINSON (whose trade from Cincinnati after the 1965 season led directly to the Orioles first World Series championship in 1966), pitcher JIM PALMER, still an insightful broadcaster, manager EARL WEAVER, and last but least late in September BROOKS ROBINSON.

Brooks has not been in good health and his ceremony was delayed until the next-to-last day before the end of the home season in late September. I attended this event along with a capacity crowd that later watched the Orioles win the second game of their three-game sweep of the cellar-dwelling Red Sox.

Brooks looked very dapper and filled was with enthusiasm for the current Orioles. “How about dem Birds?” he chortled more than once. He was joined at the ceremony by all the other statue awardees as well as former teammates AL BUMBRY and MILT PAPPAS and former Baltimore Colt running back LENNY MOORE.

Brooks told many stories about his glory days, always with his trademark self-effacement. As the Associated Press sportswriter GORDON BEARD said when Brooks retired in 1977, “They might name candy bars after Reggie Jackson in New York but they name babies after Brooks in Baltimore.”

I write this post as the rain delay seems to be coming to an end in Baltimore. What would be an Oriole-Yankee series in Charm City WITHOUT a rain delay? As always in this most surprising season the Orioles are underdogs to the powerful Yankees with their nearly $200 million payroll.

But I think the men in Black and Orange have a fighting chance to move one step closer to their first league pennant since 1983. And to have hope in October is the greatest emotion for a baseball fan.

On Friday night October 5 Manager Showalter won his first playoff game since 1995 (when he was the skipper of the Yankees) as the Orioles dethroned the Texas Rangers 5-1 in the Winner Take All Wild Card Game. Unheralded southpaw JOE SAUNDERS
outpitched Texas' highly paid Japanese import YU DARVISH.

Right-hander JASON HAMMEL, another unheralded hurler discarded by both Tampa Bay and Colorado, was poised to go head-to-head with the Yankees' big time southpaw CC SABATHIA with other obscure pitchers following him in the rotation, the Taiwanese import southpaw WEI-YIN CHEN and Mexican League veteran MIGUEL GONZALEZ. With JIM JOHNSON anchoring an effective bullpen the Orioles have a chance to win every game though of course no guarantee it will happen.

To repeat, though, to have hope after years in the darkness is a wonderful feeling.
Stay tuned for further commentary on how this amazing year ultimately turns out.

In the meantime, always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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