Many fans have lost hope as the Orioles have posted a dismal record over the past 14 seasons. Now the team is starting its new season by testing the faith of some of them as well.
Friday is Opening Day for the Baltimore Orioles, as well as for 17 other major league teams. It is also Good Friday, the most solemn day in Christianity, and the first day of Judaism's Passover — a confluence of events that is giving some baseball buffs theological pause.
"I called and told them I won't be there," said the Rev. John Bauer, a fan who is also the team's chaplain. "When I was a kid, we never even played the radio on Good Friday. Three o'clock in the afternoon, we were in church."
The Orioles' 3:05 p.m. start comes just after the time when Jesus Christ died on the cross, according to some traditions. Some churches have Good Friday services that conclude or begin at 3 p.m., although others commemorate the day with evening services.
The game poses less of a conflict for observant Jews. Passover starts at sundown, and by then, barring a lot of long or extra innings, the game against the Minnesota Twins should be over.
But then there's the potential culinary conflict. The Catholic ban on eating meat on Fridays during Lent and the Jewish taboo on leavened bread during Passover put the iconic foodstuff of baseball — the hot dog on a bun — off the table for both.
"Maybe matzo and turkey breast?" Jonathan Katz mused.
Katz is president and CEO of Kosher Sports, which runs a stand at Camden Yards. For the first homestand, though, kosher-seeking diners are on their own at the stadium — the difficulty of making ballpark food kosher for Passover prompted Katz to close the concession during the eight-day holiday that commemorates the Jews' delivery from slavery in Egypt.
The Orioles say the schedule is determined by Major League Baseball. While one team, the Cincinnati Reds, asked for and received an alternate Opening Day — they played Thursday — Orioles spokeswoman Monica Barlow said the team decided to stick with a Friday season opener for "the symbolism" of the April 6 date.
"Our Opening Day is exactly 20 years to the day we opened the ballpark," Barlow said of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"We're certainly aware it's not ideal for a lot of fans," Barlow said. "We have gotten a few calls. But I can tell you our Opening Day sales are as high as they've ever been."
The game, as usual, is a sellout.
Still, the overlap with Good Friday has created consternation, particularly among the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Sean Caine, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, issued a statement this week, decrying the timing.
"The decision to schedule season-opening games on Good Friday is just the latest example of a growing disregard for the deeply held and widely practiced faith traditions of the people of our great nation," he said.
At least one other archdiocese, Milwaukee, took a lighter approach, issuing a statement from Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki saying, "As much as we love the Brewers, unlike Jesus, they didn't die for your sins."
Listecki also noted that there would be no dispensation from the ban on eating meat.
"Listen, I enjoy a brat at the ballpark as much as anybody, and since Opening Day is against the St. Louis Cardinals, one might think that the painful reminder of the Brewers' loss to the Cards in last year's NLCS is penance enough, but unfortunately, that's not the way it works," he said. "I'm sure [Brewers general manager] Doug Melvin and his crew will make sure there are plenty of fish fries available at the concession stands."
This is not the first time that Opening Day games have fallen on Good Friday. Most famously, in an incident Caine referred to in his statement, New York Cardinal John O'Connorof New York boycotted the entire 1998 Yankees season because the team played its season opener on Good Friday.
One Oriole fan, Robert Fields Jr. of Northeast Baltimore, said he called the team to express his displeasure. He said he was given a number for MLB, and he left a message there as well.
"It's probably the most holy day on the Christian calendar," Fisher said. "I don't do anything festive. It's a pretty solemn day. I just thought it wasn't real sensitive of them to schedule the game then."
Other fans, though, say they are more distressed at the prospect of another losing season at Camden Yards than the timing of the team's Opening Day.
Like other Oriole fan bloggers, Anthony Amobi of the Oriole Post website said he hasn't heard many complaints from fans about the conflict with religious holidays. As a Catholic, he remembers going to church on Good Friday as a child but has seen that tradition go by the wayside. He will be in the stands for the Camden Yards opener.
"Life is too busy," he said, noting that he generally works on Good Fridays now.
The Rev. Peter K. Nord, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore, said he too has seen more of the faithful spending Good Friday in places other than church.
"I'm old enough to remember when stuff closed down for Good Friday, and all Christians went to the all-day marathon services," he said. "Those days are long gone."
Nord noted that pro sports in particular have long held games on religious holidays, including Easter and Christmas, and says the onus is now on the individual, rather than society as a whole, to set aside time for the practice of faith. And perhaps that's how it should be, he said.
"We can look at the change in our culture negatively as people of faith and say, 'Gee, it's really dispiriting that society no longer supports the faith of people,'" Nord said. "Or we can look at it as an opportunity for individuals to make a choice. The individual has to do it, and say, 'For me, I've chosen not to go to the home opener.'"
He and others brought up the most famous example of a conflict between faith and sports: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax declining to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.
Religious leaders noted that the timing of Friday's game would seem to allow fans to make it to both the park and any services or seder they want to attend. And if not — well, it's a long season.
"There are 161 other games to watch," said Rabbi Alan J. Yuter of B'nai Israel Congregation in downtown Baltimore.
And, he notes, it's still the Orioles, whose losing ways make them more of a punch line than a challenge to religious principle.
"You're allowed to watch the O's on the day of mourning," he said jokingly. "They'll give you more reason for mourning."
Scott McGregor, a star O's pitcher in the 1970s and '80s and an ordained Pentecostal minister, said that while Good Friday is "a very special day," he doesn't think it needs to be set aside for churchgoing.
"I always felt Jesus is with us every day," said McGregor, who considers his job coaching Orioles' pitching prospects in Sarasota his current "ministry."
"As long as you're a believer, he's in your heart."
Bauer, the Orioles' chaplain, holds no ill will toward the team for accepting the MLB schedule. "People blame the O's for a lot of things," he said. "This isn't their fault."
Bauer will be at the park a couple of days later, on Easter, celebrating his usual Sunday morning Mass in the B&O Warehouse for players, staff, umpires and others who can't make it to their home pews.
"We go from kind of a quiet solemnity," he said of this weekend, "to a hallelujah type of thing."