August 22, 2007
I am not going to tell you "Wild Bill" Hagy was a choirboy, because someone who guzzles nine or 10 Budweisers and shot-puts his cooler from the upper deck of a stadium before being led away in handcuffs probably doesn't qualify for that.
"Drinking nine or 10 beers, you get a little impulsive" was how he explained that crazy cooler-toss, his personal Gandhi moment back in 1985, when he protested the Orioles' new policy prohibiting fans from taking beer into Memorial Stadium.
So there will be no attempt here to canonize Hagy, who died Monday at age 68 and was once the most famous baseball fan in the country.
But if you were around on summer nights in the late '70s and early '80s, when Orioles Magic was at its height, and a great bear of a man with a straw hat and burlap beard and beach-ball gut led the "Roar from 34," you know how passionate baseball fans used to be in this town.
You go to Orioles games at Camden Yards now and it's so quiet you could study for the law boards.
The fans talk on cell phones and wave and mouth "Can you see me?" to their friends back home when the TV cameras are on them.
The fans now talk about where they went on vacation and how the housing market is killing them, then they go off in search of nachos or Dippin' Dots or fancy microbrews.
In between innings, they dance and sing and get all fired up about which crab has the baseball or which hot dog wins the footrace on those goofy scoreboard games.
And maybe there's nothing wrong with that, except it sure would be nice to see people get fired up about what's happening on the field.
Um, isn't that sort of why we're there?
Here's how bad it's gotten at Camden Yards: Fans now have to be told when to cheer.
The scoreboard has to light up with "Let's hear it, O's fans!" or some kind of nonsense like that.
Usually only then do you get any life from the stands, any cheering and clapping.
And it's not the great, pure roar that "Wild Bill" Hagy could summon when he lurched to his feet in the old stadium, with a couple of six-packs sloshing around in his belly.
He'd take off his hat and wave it over his head, and the roar would get louder, so loud your ears would hurt.
After that he'd encircle both arms over his head and the crowd would roar: "O!"
Then he'd contort his body into some other unearthly shape that involved balancing on one shaky leg and hooking his arm until his fist rested against his forehead, and the crowd would roar: "R!"
And by the time he spelled out "O-R-I-O-L-E-S!" - you try doing this after swilling Anheuser-Busch products for three hours - it would be so loud, you thought the place would explode.
It's a different era now, I realize that. It's much harder to be an O's fan.
For one thing, the Orioles have flat-out stunk for the past 10 seasons. So it's hard to get fired up when you see Aubrey Huff wave the bat listlessly at strike three, or when back-pedals furiously and loses a fly ball your grandmother could handle, no sweat.
For another thing, players don't stick with one team as long - and inspire as much fan loyalty - as they did back when "Wild Bill" was the high priest of Section 34.
Back then the O's had Cal and Eddie, Singleton and Dempsey, Palmer, Flanagan and McGregor, great players who seemed to be around year after year, led by a miniature Rottweiler in the dugout named Earl Weaver, who was only the best manager in baseball.
What fan wouldn't be enthralled with those teams?
It was exciting baseball built on the holy concepts of pitching, fielding and three-run homers.
And it turned a humble cab driver from Dundalk named Bill Hagy into an uber-fan, who was first hooked on the Orioles in his 20s when he watched the great championship teams of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and the rest.
Which makes you wonder where the next generation of Orioles superfans will come from, since a legacy of 10 straight losing seasons won't exactly instill such devotion for the hometown team.
Besides, now, as we all know, the upscale, corporate atmosphere at Camden Yards attracts a different kind of fan from the ones that were once wild-eyed disciples of "Wild Bill" Hagy.
The blue-collar fans, the unpretentious, un-self-conscious fans who will stand and scream for their team for nine innings, seem to show up at the ballpark less and less.
And Camden Yards grows quieter and quieter every year. It's all a little sad, isn't it?
And when you remember how great it was to go to a ballgame when Orioles Magic was in the air and "Wild Bill" Hagy summoned a nightly avalanche of noise from an old stadium on 33rd Street, it makes it that much sadder.
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