In the fifth inning at Camden Yards, the cameras leave the field and turn to the stands to find the "Fan of the Game." The big screen over the scoreboard shows a smiling dude in an O's jersey and an orange hard hat waving an Orioles flag. The crowd roars before the camera quickly pans away to the next featured fan.
Over 2.5 million people will spin the turnstiles at Camden Yards this season, but only 81 of them will be named "Fan of the Game." Sometimes it's a kid decked out in orange dancing like a tiny lunatic; other times it's a drunk in an orange wig or a pretty girl in Orioles sunglasses and an ironic foam finger. For most of them, it's a once in a lifetime deal, a Birds' fan badge of honor that they'll talk about for a week or two and remember when they catch a game next season.
Other fans, though, have won so many times they've lost count. They're the folks who come to 40, 50—heck, 81 games each and every year. They come when it's hot, they come when it's raining, they come when the O's are winning, and they came when the team sucked. Most of them have been unofficially banned from winning "Fan of the Game," which is fair. Letting them compete would be like letting Adam Jones bat cleanup on your Little League team.
These aren't fans, these are Super Fans, and they come in all stripes, though, to be honest, those that wear stripes generally stick to orange and black like the ones on Sarah Robinson's furry leg warmers. Robinson, aka the Baltimore Bird Lady, spends her days working as a nanny in Annapolis and her nights at Camden Yards in her ever-evolving costume. One constant, however, is the bag full of Orioles-themed treats she gives to the children who mob her. When asked for a photo she alights upon orange bedazzled slippers, her tutu of orange, black, and white scarves fluttering in the upper-deck breeze, and raises her arms, allowing her homemade cape to ripple behind her. She's suddenly the star of a one-woman ballet: Orioles Lake. After, she returns to her seat and says in a voice almost too quiet to hear, "I'm very shy."
There's also Clint Griggs, aka Captain O, who wears an orange cape, ankle and wrist guards, and a breast plate emblazoned with an Orioles' "O." He looks like a Roman centurion assigned to the Orioles legion. Jonathan Scheffenacker, the Orioles' "Sunglass Guy," wears a shirt, tie, backwards Orioles cap, and his trademark dark shades and sits behind the Orioles' dugout at pretty much all home games. He may not sound familiar, but he's in almost every shot of a left-handed batter at the plate and once you see him, you can't un-see him. New this year is José Erick Cortez, the Orioles Fan Bird. Imagine the offspring of the actual Oriole Bird and the muppet Sam the Eagle if it were made from carpet remnants by a dude who has never sewn before. Cortez's Fan Bird costume is anything but ornithologically correct, but his signature Orioles dance is a crowd stopper. When asked how he put it all together, Cortez's muffled reply comes through the Fan Bird's beak: "I'm not supposed to talk."
The nest is indeed crowded these days, but the most famous of Camden Yard's current clutch of costumed revelers remains Carne Cabeza. If there was a secret government cabal dedicated to creating the ultimate cheering weapon, the product of its genetic machinations would probably end up looking a lot like Carne. Cabeza wears a black-and-orange Mexican wrestler-style mask to protect his not-so-secret identity, but ask and he'll tell you his given name is Neal Moorhouse. When you see him in costume, though, it's tough to consider anything but Carne Cabeza his real name. Resplendent in black tights, a Maryland flag codpiece, and streaming orange cape, Cabeza's massive bare belly resembles a hairy potato and provides an ample canvas for game-time slogans applied in orange body paint. "Go O's" and "Free Hugs" are frequent favorites.
The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea famously postulated that movement is an impossibility and that all motion is an illusion. He illustrated his paradox by describing a race between the legendary Achilles and a tortoise. If Zeno were alive today, he'd probably choose a different metaphor: trying to circle Camden Yards with Carne Cabeza. Being on Eutaw Street with Cabeza is like being in Graceland with Elvis; he is mobbed from every direction. A man in a Brooks Robinson jersey calls out, "Hey Super Fan, can I get a picture," before plopping his children down on either side of Cabeza. "Hey guy, can I get a picture?" bellows a man with a thick Bronx accent. "We got nothing like you in New York." An enormous oaf in a Braves hat shouts, "He needs lovin' too!" before abandoning a picture with his girlfriend to push through the gaggle of people encircling Cabeza. The bellowing man-child careens off children he doesn't notice at the blurry extremes of his vision and wraps a meaty arm around Cabeza, then begins viciously open-hand smacking him in the belly the way a drunk pets a dog. Cabeza moves him along with a sly elbow to the ribs and the man returns to his mortified partner, completely unaware that his low-riding shorts are exposing enough crack to halt a Marion Barry motorcade.
For Moorhouse, attending games as Cabeza is an odd form of community service. He never denies a photo, even to fans as obnoxious and oblivious as the belly slapper.
"Being a Super Fan means making sure everyone in the world knows Baltimore is the best," says Moorhouse, but not everyone gets the message, including Jessica Goughnour, Moorhouse's girlfriend. This year, the couple celebrated her birthday at an Orioles game, but Goughnour insisted Carne Cabeza stay at home.
"I wanted to come with Neal," she says, adding, "I couldn't have him going to fetch me drinks as Carne. He'd be gone for three hours."
Even from the field, the costumed Supers are tough to miss.
"They're on the Jumbotron between innings," says Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy. "Of course we see 'em."
The costumed Supers drive the stadium and pump the crowd. One Carne Cabeza or Bird Lady can do the work of a dozen Neal Moorhouses or Sarah Robinsons. Even with the intensity of a one-run game during a late-season pennant race, there's just something about a very large man in very small tights or a woman in a bird suit hurling trinkets to the children that stand out in a crowd. "They're hard to miss," says Hardy, "and man, they're having fun."
With the Orioles in first place, there's a lot of fun to be had at Camden Yards this season. Winning brings fans and more fans means more costumed Supers. There's probably a formula that will give you the number of costumers at each game. Take the 10-year fan baseline, adjust inversely based on the number of games over .500, check the game-time temperature and add 10 for every degree over 85, double for each consecutive win, then multiply by the Orioles' cushion in the AL East. Between the late August heat and (at press time), a 7.5-game lead over the hated Yankees, the best investment in Baltimore might be a tights-and-feathers stand on the corner of Pratt and Eutaw.
"It's really different than anything I've ever been a part of," says Hardy. "The fans in Baltimore are unbelievable. This city? You hear the stories about what it used to be like and it's starting to get back to that."
The energy around the yard has created a bizarre perpetual awesome machine. It's a symbiotic relationship between the team and the city. The O's win and fans go nuts; fans go nuts and the O's win. "Obviously we couldn't do any of it without the fans," says Hardy. "But when you get 40,000 people at your stadium, it's a much better atmosphere. It gives you a lift."
Running through that raging ocean of orange is an unseen undercurrent; a different sort of Super. If Carne Cabeza and his legion of loudness are the drum-beating heart of Camden Yards, these fans are its soul and its bones. They may not wrap themselves in spandex or mug for the cameras hoping to be a star in feathers, but their fandom is second to none. They come to a minimum of 40 home games a year, some make all 81, and a few follow the team on the road to make even more. When the season ends, they mourn; when the team returns for spring training, they're waiting in the stands. These are the Iron Fans.
"We recognize them [too]," says Hardy. "They're waiting for us in the parking lot when we get there, they're waiting there for us when we're leaving, we appreciate them." In a time when the average major league ballplayer makes well over $3 million a season and most fans never get closer to the Orioles than their TV screen, Hardy's sincerety is surprising.
"I've had fans make cookies, they've given me birthday presents," he says. "They've been there even when we weren't winning ball games. When they're loyal like that? When you haven't seen them the whole offseason then they show up at spring training? It's nice. My birthday's coming up in a couple of days and I was doing a signing over at BARCs and a girl gave me this Kleenex box that she'd woven out of yarn. It's pretty cool. I'll keep that."
The Orioles heydays of the 1980s gave this city its greatest Super Fan: Wild Bill Hagy. On Aug. 8, a Friday night game against the Cardinals, the Orioles celebrated their 60th year in Baltimore. The team gathered its greatest stars: Ripken, Murray, Palmer, and both Robinsons were honored. The next day the team honored just one man, Wild Bill Hagy. It's possible most Baltimoreans couldn't spell "Orioles" before Wild Bill taught them. He'd doff his straw cowboy hat to rile the crowd, his bear-gut a beacon drawing 50,000 pairs of eyes, then, through his mighty beard, he'd bellow a deafening "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" chant using his massive body for living subtitles. He and the famous "Roar from 34," so named after his Memorial Stadium section, have earned as big a place in Orioles fans' hearts as Brooks Robinson's glove in the 1970 World Series or Rick Dempsey's bat in 83.
To remember his legend, the team is giving out 20,000 Wild Bill Hagy hats at this game. Hagy never wore a costume, but he's become one. On Aug. 9, Otakon has taken over the streets outside the stadium, but those hats make Camden Yards look like a Super Fan cosplay event. From the Bird Lady's seat in the upper deck, the bleachers are a nearly solid matte of straw cowboy hats broken only by a single blaze of orange. Robinson points to the orange spot and says, "There's Romeo."
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Romeo Santos straddles the line between the Iron Fans and the Supers. He doesn't wear capes or tights—he gets enough of uniforms in his day job. No one at the park calls him "Sergeant" or "Santos," just "Romeo." He wears a jersey and an orange hard hat that he's customized with a feathered Mohawk and a few dozen signatures, all of them Boog Powell's. It's not really a costume, but the helmet and the two giant Oriole Bird tattoos, a happy bird on his right forearm and an angry one on his left, make him hard to miss. Last year Romeo was a finalist for induction into the ESPN Fan Hall of Fame and while he may not stand alone as the biggest living Orioles fan, there certainly aren't many bigger.
Today, Romeo is beaming. There are 45,969 green seats in Camden Yards and two orange ones. Today Romeo has one of them: Seat 10, Section 86, Row FF, the spot where Cal Ripken's record-setting 278th home run as a shortstop landed. "All these years I've wanted this seat," he says. "I got it today by accident!" Clearly Wild Bill was smiling.
Romeo always loved the Orioles, but growing up Pigtown poor in the shadows of Camden Yards, he couldn't afford to go to games.
"I'd watch with my uncles," recalls Romeo. "Cal would be at the plate and, because of the delay, we'd hear the stadium roar. My uncle would say, 'Cal just hit a home run!' Thirty seconds later we'd see it." As he got older, nothing could keep him out of the park. When he was 13 Romeo and his Pigtown crew started jumping the fences to watch their beloved birds. When it came time to get his first job, there was only one choice; Romeo sold lemonade at the stadium. "They moved me to the upper deck," he remembers, "'cause I'd just stand there behind home plate and watch the game."
After he joined the army, Romeo and his wife Tracy got season tickets. They loved going to the games together; if Tracy and Romeo were each other's first loves, the Orioles were their second.
Romeo wasn't at the appointment when Tracy found out she had breast cancer and seven years later it still weighs on him. He never missed another.
"I was the Cal Ripken of cancer husbands," he jokes, but the smile he wears is thin. As Tracy's health slipped, the ballpark became a sanctuary, a little place of peace away from the turmoil and the tests. Tracy would stay in their seats in left field up under the upper deck and away from the weather. Romeo would take his glove out behind the bullpen to shag fly balls during batting practice. When he'd shag one, he'd look back at her and hold it up and they would share a smile. As the cancer gained ground, they started leaving games early, then Tracy started staying home. Tracy told him it was like he was on a treadmill running a marathon beside her. Together, they fought hard, but eventually, the cancer won. Romeo returned to the games, but he stopped using his glove.
Looking back was too hard.
Now, for Romeo, going to games is a ritual. There are certain fans to find and ushers to say hello to. It's like making your way across a family reunion with your grandfather. Nearly every 20 feet there's a "hello," or a hand to be shook, or a waiting hug. During a quick stop at fan assistance the woman behind the desk smiles warmly and offers a quick "Hi Romeo!" After showing his active-duty military ID, she gives him a complimentary Orioles cap sporting a camouflage "O." Fifteen feet out the door he gives it to an appreciative fan.
On Eutaw Street Romeo mingles with the Super Fans. Carne offers Romeo a quick bow and says, "This is the Super Fan!" The two chat briefly before Carne is engulfed in the crowd. Turning to chat with the Fan Bird, Romeo is met with silence. "I'm gonna get you a whistle so we can fuckin' communicate."
As he walks through the seating bowl, ushers shout and offer high-fives. One, Mary Ellen Myers, gives him a warm hug and a broad smile. Romeo went to school with her daughter and she helped get him his first job at the park. "The Poly Crew!" she exclaims. "We had a bunch that summer."
Along the right field line Jeff Maynard stops him for a handshake. Maynard used to make around 60 games a year. Now he's retired and living in Florida so he'll at least make 29 at the yard, but throw in spring training and road games in Tampa and he'll easily hit his 40. In front of the flag courts Tara Rasmussen grabs Romeo's arm. Trim and athletic, Rasmussen looks like the iron woman triathlete she is, but garbed simply in a jersey and cap, you'd be hard-pressed to know she's also an Iron Fan. She's on pace to hit close to 50 games this year. "If I weren't married, I'd go to 81," she says with a laugh. "But if I went to 81 games, I wouldn't be married."
Romeo introduces Donna Oliver as "Stretch Lady." Oliver has season tickets behind home plate and, so far this season, she's only missed two games, but her husband hasn't left her yet.
"I don't know why he loves me so much," she muses, but they get their dates in. "We find time around the orange squares," she says, referring to the home games on the team's schedule. "It's my social calendar." When you go to 79 home games in a season it can be tough to fit in a trainer, but Oliver was watching warmups and figured, "they looked like they knew what they were doing," so she began stretching along. Oliver's lost over 30 pounds stretching with the O's. Players love her and some started bringing her onto the field to stretch. After games, Oliver waits by the players' parking lot with a little gaggle of other Orioles addicts. They watch the players drive off, catch up on each others' weeks, and say goodbye to the players, hoping for a wave. "Manny gives a good one," Oliver says, "and J.J. since I called him out." The high point came the first night Adam Jones got a loudspeaker for his truck. He drove past and said, "Good night, Stretching Lady, good night . . ."
Romeo's final stop is to visit his dear friend Tina Bednarski. When it comes to fandom, she's every bit his equal. The walls of her childhood bedroom were an unbroken continuum of Orioles paraphernalia forming a mosaic: The Mind of an O's Fan. She fondly remembers where she and her family sat at old Memorial Stadium. "Where Wild Bill used to sit?" she says. "We were across."
Now, when she brings her family, some games it goes from her grandmother to her granddaughter: O's fans rolling five generations deep. Some fans bring in a bag full of snacks; Tina's backpack has a half-dozen hardbound picture books of her extended Orioles family. Romeo's in there along with dozens of Orioles past and present, mixed in with the picture of Tina's granddaughter Abby with a little sign that reads, "My first Opening Day: the first of many!" and one of her daughter Kristen as a ball girl for the Rays at spring training. Kristen's easy to spot: She's the one in Orioles gear.
Abby is 6 and counts by uniform numbers: Chris Davis plus J.J. Hardy equals Nick Markakis. On her birthday, Dempsey called to wish her a happy one and Davis brought her and Kirsten on the field to give her a jersey. When Kristen talks about players she says "J.J." and "Nick;" there's no need for last names. She bakes for the team and knows the players' favorite snacks. This year Tina made each player the facial-tissue box cover with the Orioles logo and the player's number. "I hope they think they're cool," she says.
There's a beauty in the way these fans have been embraced by the Orioles, but it pales before what they share in the stands. Fans like Tina, Donna, Carne, and Romeo, they're just as much a part of that ballpark as the bricks in the warehouse. They fill the stands with more than their bodies. "We're a little baseball family," says Romeo. And it's a family that saved him.
Away from the stadium, Romeo fell in love again, with a woman named Jessica, and together they had a little boy. Camden is 13 months old now, he's got a little brother on the way, and the Orioles are winning. Life is good. There was a time a few years ago Romeo went to games in costume. He put on a cape and painted his face—the costumes can fire up the fans around you—but Romeo no longer needs the mask. In the third inning, Nelson Cruz pounds a home run two rows in front of Romeo and in the fifth Delmon Young crushes another and the place turned into a party. Wild Bill appeared on the Jumbotron, the ghost of all that's right with baseball.
Romeo looks up and says, "Someone should probably spell 'Orioles.'"
A fan in a few seats away hollers, "I think that's you!"
Being a man of duty, Romeo makes his way to the front of the section and screams, "Come on! I need help spelling Orioles!" The crowd surges to life as he stands to form each letter. "O-R-I-L-E-S! Oh man, that's not right." No, he's not Wild Bill—there'll never be another—but the fans knew where his heart was.