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BALTIMORE ORIOLES Opening Day Catchers – From Clint Courtney to Gregg Zaun

CLINT COURTNEY - Starting Catcher, 1954

CLINT COURTNEY - Starting Catcher, 1954

GREGG ZAUN - Opening Day Catcher, 2009 (?)

GREGG ZAUN - Opening Day Catcher, 2009 (?)

 This post may eventually go down as a relic of B.M.W. –before Matt Wieters– but for now, let’s look back at the men who’ve donned the tools of ignorance on Opening Day for the Orioles.  Nineteen different catchers have strapped on a mask, chest protector and shinguards in the first game of the season for Baltimore, and veteran Gregg Zaun seems destined to become the 20th on Monday afternoon.   If indeed the 37-year-old Zaun gets the call, he’ll immediately set an Orioles record as the oldest Opening Day catcher.

Zaun’s uncle, Rick Dempsey started more openers behind the plate than any other Oriole –10 in a row from 1977-1986.  While “The Dipper” batted only .235 in those contests, he did homer against the reigning AL champion Royals at Memorial Stadium in 1981, and remains the only Baltimore catcher to hit a triple and attempt a stolen base on Opening Day.  Both of those feats took place @ Chicago in 1980 (he was caught stealing).  When other teams tried to run against the O’s, Dempsey was more than up for the challenge, gunning down six opposition base stealers in a dozen attempts.

Chris Hoiles ranks second on this list of Birds backstops with seven starts in season openers.  They came consecutively from 1992-1998, and he had a habit of hitting two-baggers.  Though Hoiles managed just five hits in 23 official at bats for a .217 average, four of them were doubles.  In 55 years, no other Baltimore catcher has even managed two!  Perhaps Hoiles’ biggest claim to fame is driving in the first run at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, scoring Sam Horn with –you guessed it– a double.

The real power is supplied by Gus Triandos, who started half-a-dozen straight openers from 1957-1962.  He went deep in each of his first three Opening Day starts, with a club record (for catchers) four RBI in 1957, and nine total runs batted in over six games.  Triandos batted .304 overall, and the only chinks in his armor are being the only Orioles catcher charged with two passed balls, and the first two allow four stolen bases in a single contest (1959 – Terry Kennedy also surrendered a quartet in 1988).

Dempsey, Hoiles, Triandos and Andy Etchebarren have combined to start more than half of the Orioles openers since the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954.  Etchebarren got the nod from 1966-1970, and again in 1975, but batted only .158 in the first game of the season.  Not once did anybody even attempt to steal against him, but the strangest thing about his appearances is that he was hit by pitches by two different Red Sox pitchers in 1969.  Whatever he did, it worked, as the O’s went 5-1 when he started.

Elrod Hendricks is the only catcher to make three Opening Day starts (1971-1972 & 1976), and the Orioles won every one of them.  Nine different backstops made a pair of starts.  In chronological order, they are:

Hal Smith (1955-1956) – only Orioles catcher to make his MLB debut on Opening Day

John Orsino (1964-1965) – From 1960-1980, “Horse” was the only O’s catcher to hit a home run.

Earl Williams (1973-1974) – Three runs scored in the ’73 contest remain a record for O’s catchers

Terry Kennedy (1987-1988) – Allowed five stolen bases without throwing anybody out

Mickey Tettleton (1989-1990) – Whiffed three times in 1990 inaugural, a record tied by Bob Melvin the following year

Charles Johnson (1999-2000) – Batted .429 with three hits in seven trips

Geronimo Gil (2002-2003) – Threw out three of five base-stealers and knocked in three runs.

Javy Lopez (2004-2005) – Homer off Pedro Martinez, three hits, three RBI and caught a guy stealing in O’s debut

Ramon Hernandez (2006 & 2008) – Only O’s catcher to reach safely four times in opener, 3-3 with walk in ’06

That just about covers it, but we’ll name check the five Orioles catchers who made just one Opening Day start before we call it a wrap.  Of course, Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney got the start in 1954, and he went 2-4.  None of the other four even managed a hit.  Dick Brown (0-3 in ’63), Bob Melvin (three whiffs in ’91), Brook Fordyce (0-4 in ’01) & Paul Bako (0-2 in ’07).

That’s it.  Go get ’em Zaunie!  Warm it up for big Matt.

by MALCOLM ALLEN

malallen@live.com

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