As part of our series on the 1997 Orioles, we'll be taking a closer look at the Birds' 10 best games of that season. This list was compiled through a comprehensive, multi-faceted ranking process and voted on by a blue-ribbon panel of...OK, let's be honest, it's just me scrounging through box scores on Retrosheet. Instead of counting down from the 10th best game on forward, we'll simply cover the games chronologically, posting them throughout this year on the same date each game was played in 1997.
The first, appropriately enough, was Opening Day. For a team to pull off the Orioles' historic wire-to-wire achievement-- remaining in first place from the beginning of the season to the end-- it's obviously kind of essential that they win their opening game. Yet, nobody quite knew what to expect from the Orioles at the beginning of the season. Oh, there was no question that the Orioles were loaded with talent, and fans had high hopes for a dominant team, as Stacey mentioned in her excellent article. But there was still a lingering sour taste in O's fans' mouths after the unsightly shenanigans of the ‘96 playoffs, when the Boy-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named stuck out his fat, stupid hands and brought the Birds' season to a bitter end.
The first couple days of the 1997 season got off to an inauspicious start, too. The Orioles' opening game, originally scheduled for April 1, was postponed due to frighteningly high winds. (For once, that annoying open date in the schedule after Opening Day actually came in handy, as the game was simply pushed back a day.) There were other concerns, as well. O's ace Mike Mussina, who had started the previous three Opening Days, was out with elbow tendinitis. Star second baseman Roberto Alomar was serving a 5-game suspension after spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck the previous September. And of course there was plenty of speculation about O's legend Cal Ripken, who had just been moved to third base after being an everyday fixture at shortstop since 1982. Oh, and Cal was entering the final season of his contract, saying that if he wasn't signed before the season's first pitch, he would shelve extension talks until after the year.
Yet all it took was one day-- one glorious, rewarding, Opening Day-- for the Orioles to put aside their worries and begin their thrilling journey into baseball immortality.
The good news started about half an hour before the first pitch, when the O's announced they had reached an agreement on a contract extension for Ripken, keeping the Hall of Famer under their employ for $15.1 million through the 1999 season. It was a huge weight lifted off the mind of his adoring fans and Cal himself. "[The contract] makes me relax. I play better when I'm relaxed," he said (all quotes in this article are from the April 3, 1997 edition of The Free Lance-Star).
The O's, as it turned out, didn't need to worry about the missing Mussina. They replaced him with a secret weapon in the person of Jimmy Key, the Opening Day dominator. Key, one of the Birds' big offseason pickups, entered with a 6-0 career record on Opening Day in past stops with the Blue Jays and Yankees. And he didn't miss a beat in his O's debut here. He mowed down the first nine Kansas City Royals batters he faced.
As for Ripken? Well, if he felt awkward about shifting back to third base after 15 years, he sure didn't show it. Cal brought a huge cheer from the sellout crowd in the top of the fourth inning when he made a backhanded, diving stop of a would-be Jeff King RBI single and gunned him down at first to preserve the scoreless tie.
Wouldn't you know it-- immediately after making a great defensive play, Ripken led off the next inning. Seems like that happens all the time...or, more accurately, 1 out of every 9 times. Cal came up big again in the bottom of the fourth, smashing a solo homerun off Kevin Appier to give the O's a 1-0 lead. That triggered a mini-meltdown in Appier, who allowed a single and three walks to the next four hitters to force home the Orioles' second run. Appier, though, recovered to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam without further damage.
The Royals didn't give up easily, rallying to tie the game in the sixth. New shortstop Mike Bordick, facing the monumental task of replacing an iconic Oriole, let his nerves get the better of him when he threw away a Jose Offerman grounder to put a runner at second. A Bip Roberts RBI single and King sac fly plated a pair of unearned runs to knot the score at 2. Still, Key finished the inning with a strikeout, his fourth of the day, to cap a quality debut. Six innings, no earned runs-- and (spoiler alert!) he ultimately improved his career Opening Day record to 7-0.
The O's jumped back on top in the bottom of the sixth against a young lefty making his major-league debut: Jamie Walker. Yes, that Jamie Walker. He was young once! Brady Anderson-- remarkably playing through a cracked rib-- led off with an infield single, one of his three hits on the day. The next two batters were retired, and it looked like the O's might walk away empty-handed. But another recent free-agent addition stepped up for the Birds: Eric Davis. The Orioles' new right fielder delivered an RBI double, putting the Birds back in front, 3-2.
The O's notched an insurance run in the seventh on an Anderson RBI single, and the Birds' excellent bullpen took it from there. Alan Mills retired both batters he faced, and lefty Jesse Orosco-- despite putting two runners on base-- escaped a jam in the seventh. That set the stage for setup man Armando Benitez and closer Randy Myers, a duo that over the year would become one of the most dominant 1-2 punches in baseball. Benitez made quick work of the Royals with a pair of strikeouts in a scoreless eighth. Not to be outdone, Myers struck out the side to shut the door in the ninth, his first of 45 saves in 46 chances that year.
As Myers rung up Jose Offerman to end the game, the 1-0 Orioles took their place atop the AL East standings-- a spot they would never relinquish. If the Most Birdland Player award existed back then, the clear choice on this day would be Ripken, who added a pair of doubles to his homerun as he celebrated his new contract. "Somebody wrote me a pretty good script," he said. "Two doubles, a homerun, a walk, a win, and a new contract-- that is a pretty good day."
The Camden Yards crowd of 46,588 left happy, excited about the possibilities for the season. Manager Davey Johnson summed it up best: "It was a perfect day." And the 1997 Orioles were just getting started.