Local product Zimmermann strong as Camden turns 30

2 years ago

BALTIMORE — As most of his teammates made their way home late Sunday evening, the team bus returning to Camden Yards following a draining stay in Florida that began with Spring Training and ended with a sweep to the Rays, Bruce Zimmermann couldn’t leave so quickly. There was a moment to be savored, a chance to be with his final quiet thoughts before the storm arrived.

Zimmermann snuck out onto the field, posting an Instagram story that simply read “Soon…”

A day later, he would become one of just four Maryland-born pitchers and the first in 32 years to start the Orioles’ home opener — and this year marking the 30th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A day later, Zimmermann would lead his hometown team to victory with four shutout innings in a 2-0 win over the Brewers on Monday in front of 44,461 clad in orange and black — a number he used to be part of for previous home openers. A day later, Ellicott City childhood dreams became Baltimore realities.

“It was even better than I could have imagined,” Zimmermann said. “It was everything that I could have asked for and more.”

Not many could understand what Zimmermann felt Monday afternoon. It wasn’t just the novelty and emotion of making the start for a home opener for your hometown team but also doing so against the backdrop of dual uncertainty, needing to perform to keep your roster spot secured and coming off a shortened Spring Training.

But Dave Johnson understands.

It had been over three decades since a Maryland-born Oriole started the home opener. Johnson was the last, doing so in 1990, and coming from a similar career arc as Zimmermann. Approaching career inflection points, both were simply fighting for a spot in the rotation as part of a lockout-impacted Spring Training. The thought of pitching the home opener in their hometown was secondary, if even present to the mind at all.

But as years went by, wonderment started to swirl.

“Since then, when local guys or guys from Maryland would come on to the club at some point in time, I always wonder, ‘Hey, who’s going to be that next guy that gets that home opener?’” Johnson, now a MASN broadcaster, recalled from his home Sunday. “So here it is.”

There Zimmerman was, pitching on his hometown mound not for nearly the first time but for the most meaningful time. Strikeouts (four of them) induced chants of “Bruuuuuuce.”

Close calls against him invited dissenting raised arms from the score of Zimmermann’s family and friends seated directly behind home plate in Section 38.

It set the stage for the rest of the afternoon. When Cedric Mullins provided the game-changing hit in the second — a two-run single — an already-energized Camden Yards had more to celebrate.

And when Jorge López brought them to their feet again with two outs in the ninth, it was simply the cap on a day Zimmermann called “a perfect storm.”

Baltimore had a local kid to celebrate once again.

“The energy in the ballpark was fantastic,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “It’s fun to hear Orioles fans cheering and a lot of them.”

Part of Zimmermann’s intention Sunday evening in a quiet Camden Yards was to try and remedy any possible distractions, to visualize and prepare himself for the pageantry of the day. He had experienced just a couple home openers growing up outside Baltimore. Never had he pitched in a full-capacity Major League home opener.

But Zimmermann, like Takoma Park, Md., native Steve Barber and like Baltimore-natives Johnson and Tom Phoebus before him, worked past the nerves, pressure and outside noise. The Orioles are 4-1 in home openers started by a Maryland-born pitcher.

When asked how Monday afternoon stacks up in Zimmermann’s career now, he responded that it’s No. 1 — just a hair above his fanless debut in 2020 and his re-debut in front of family in ’21. Few experiences may ever rival it.

Johnson feels the same now decades removed from his opportunity. He was in attendance for Monday’s game. It harbored memories of 32 years ago.

“Even here now, 30 years after I played for the Orioles, it still kind of gets me to where I’m like, ‘Did that really happen? Did I really get a chance to do that?’” Johnson recalled. “I could have spent five, six, seven years — 10 years — playing for somebody else in the big leagues. And it just wouldn’t have meant the same as it did getting a chance to play for the Orioles.”