The Orioles' annual FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center emits a festival atmosphere, complete with face-painting and bingo corner. Held just weeks before spring training begins, it springs the baseball season into motion. Players come to town to sign autographs and pose for photos. Even in the darkest years, optimism and excitement rules the day.
But while Saturday's announced crowd of more than 18,500 marked a single-day FanFest record — the event used to run over two days in the 1990s — the day revolved around remembering Earl Weaver, the Orioles' Hall of Fame manager who died late Friday night at the age of 82.
Wearing his custom-made Earl Weaver jersey, lifelong Orioles fan Rick Gaetano made the three-hour drive to Baltimore from his home in Mountain Top, Pa., on Saturday morning to attend FanFest when he received a text message from his wife and learned of Weaver's death.
"It was a complete shock," Gaetano said. "I wear his jersey. I never got a jersey until I found this one. Obviously there are some heavy hearts. In fact, I discussed with my son coming down, whether I should even have this jersey today? Should I take it off? Should I put a black arm band around it? How should I react to it? But after thinking about it, I decided I'm going to stay with it."
The modern-day Orioles are coming off their finest season in 15 years, their first trip to the playoffs since 1997. That's brought a renewed excitement to fans, and when vouchers for Saturday's autograph sessions went on sale earlier this month, they sold out within an hour.
As the gates opened on Saturday morning, the orange-and-back line to enter snaked around the Convention Center exterior.
Fans flowed into the main hall steadily five hours into the event, and one of the only complaints was that it was too crowded.
"This is pretty impressive," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said. "I woke up and looked out the hotel window and saw some people lining up and I was like, 'Oh, there are people waiting outside. That's cool.' Then I walked over to get some lunch and walked to the other side of the building. And they are wrapped around there. And then they are wrapped around the other side and I was like, 'Holy cow.'
"When I was a little guy, I came to Camden Yards," O'Day added. "And I saw a packed house. We had to sit way up in the outfield. It's a baseball tradition here and I think we kind of rewoke it last year. So it should be even better this year."
After a 93-win regular season, the Orioles took the Yankees to a decisive Game 5 in the American League Division Series, setting a new baromoter for baseball success in town. Catcher Matt Wieters noticed a distinct difference in the mood compared to past years.
"It's not as much, 'We're going to get them this year,'" Wieters said. "We had a great season last year and now it's 'Let's go.' It's something where you get that little compliment first as opposed to let's not worry about what happened last year and move on. I think its more people here than I've ever seen before, and that's something, when you have a Ravens game tomorrow and you still get the Orioles fan to show up today."
As for Gaetano, who grew up an Orioles fan living in Carlisle, Pa., he was a fan of Weaver's since meeting him at age 8 at Memorial Stadium. His son Scott, who wore a Nick Markakis jersey Saturday, asked his father why he never owned a current Oriole's jersey.
"I wouldn't wear anyone else's jersey because they might leave or something," Gaetano said. "Weaver was done. When I was a kid and I was introduced to baseball, that's what I remember. I remember the manager and I liked him, and I met him once as a very young kid. You can ask my son here. He knows Earl Weaver's been my man since Day One."
Sentiment about Weaver resonated throughout the event.
"When you talk about The Oriole Way, he was the one who implemented the Oriole Way," said Annapolis resident Jim Garman. "He threw out the book and he rewrote his own book. I was really upset coming in here, but it's been a celebration today.
"My friend said, let's go and be among family," Garman said. "Orioles fans are like a family. I wonder if more people came out because of it. It's amazing."
Glen Burnie resident Kathryn Schrak, 18, is starting college this week, but before she left, she had to get the autograph of her favorite player, center fielder Adam Jones.
Schrak waited in line for about 45 minutes, and when Jones signed her black No. 10 Orioles jersey, she welled up with tears.
"I was shaking," she said.
"She started counting down with nine days to go," her father Dave Schrak said. "It's nine days to Adam, it's eight days to Adam. I would come in the door and that's what I'd hear."
Jones, now the centerpiece of the franchise after signing a six-year, $85.5 million contract during last season, said Saturday's turnout puts the team's focus on maintaining that excitement by continuing to win.
"It is appreciated," Jones said. "It is chaotic here today, which [is a] necessary evil. It's a good thing to have the fan base back. Now we have to do it again. You don't want to be a one-year wonder. You want to go out and prove to the fans that we are going to try and change this franchise around instead of just one year."
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