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Is park scene-stealer or just scene-setter?


Somewhere far away, on distant shores, perhaps in lands not so enchanted as our own, there might be people who have not gone plain wacky over these Orioles.

Do you know them?

There are probably people whose concerns are totally removed from the length of a certain left fielder's sideburns. Sometimes, I hear vague rumors about turmoil in one place or great joy in another.

I can't connect.

A friend calls from Chicago, and we talk for a while -- there seem to be these NBA playoffs that he was pretty excited about; go figure -- but then when I ask him what he thinks about Chris Hoiles, there's a long silence on the other end of the phone.

What do you think about Chris Hoiles?

See, that shouldn't be a conversation stopper.

I have a TV-writer friend who flew in from L.A. just to see the new stadium. His first words to me were: "My God, it's beautiful."

Of course.

Bob Costas took the train down from New York. He wasn't working. He wanted to see the stadium. He wanted to see the Orioles.

"They really did it right," he said.

The stadium or the Orioles? I wondered.

You can't exactly separate the two right now. The season began with the Architectural Digest stadium and this vague, back-of-the-mind concern about what kind of show the Orioles could muster for their beautiful showcase. Who wonders about that now?

Something strange happened. And it continues to happen. The Orioles are playing better than anyone could have supposed, maybe better than anyone could have even wished for, and how do you separate their play from the stadium?

Did one help make the other?

Can good feeling help make a baseball team?

I suspect it's more complicated than that, and yet I don't have any good answers.

I keep telling myself that the Orioles can't be this good, and that coming off the 95 losses they produced last year, a .500 season would be great. Now, it doesn't matter how good the Orioles might be.

Somebody asked me the other day to compare this Orioles season to the '89 season. You can't. Not yet. In '89, coming off the horror of '88, it took awhile for anyone to believe. The Orioles' start wasn't this good anyway. It was more that everyone else in the division was terrible.

And, as the season stretched on, it became more and more improbable. Remember, that was the season of Mickey Tettleton. And of Jeff Ballard. And of rookie Gregg Olson. It was a season so special that it probably will never be replicated. Much of the good feeling in this town about the Orioles can be traced to 1989.

This year, it's different. A year ago, the Orioles were supposed to be decent, but flopped. Now, you can look at the Orioles and say, well, if Rick Sutcliffe is healthy, he's a heck of a pitcher. You look at Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina, and all you see is grand potential. You look at Glenn Davis . . .

Can we talk about Glenn Davis for a minute? Is he a little weird? Maybe. Is he 100 percent healthy now? Who knows? Was there any reason he wouldn't have wanted to play? Are you nuts? Davis wanted to play. He might have frustrated the Orioles with his choice of doctors, but you know he desperately wanted to play, if only to prove he isn't damaged goods. When his bloop single started the famous ninth-inning rally of Thursday night, he was the happiest man in the ballpark.

"I finally feel like I'm part of the team," Davis said. "When you're [injured and] watching the game from the dugout, you know you're part of the team, but you feel like you're one of the living dead."

Who wouldn't want to be part of this?

So far, it's the year of Brady Anderson's hair and Hoiles' home runs. It's the year of Sutcliffe and Mussina and McDonald. It's the year of Mark McLemore and Tim Hulett. It's the season when 40,000-plus show up for a midweek afternoon game. It's the season when you buy tickets for August in May.

Before the '89 season, everyone confidently picked the Orioles to finish last. This season, most people picked them either third or fourth. Some even picked them first. So, if the quick start is a surprise, it's hardly a shock.

But, more than a surprise, it's fun.

This was going to be a season-long party anyway. The construction of the new stadium had assured that. All you have to do is look at the season-ticket numbers. All you have to do is hang around Boog's barbecue stand. Yes, it was always going to be a party, no matter what kind of season the Orioles put together.

But who could have guessed it would be a party that nobody wanted to see end?

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