I, Fan You think the players feel the pressure of a pennant race? Try being The Fan. It's tough, it's nerve-wracking, it's something she wouldn't trade for the world

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One night in July, a guy climbed up the left field foul pole and The Fan thought, yep, it's starting. Then this month, The Fan met a couple who confessed that on an overseas business trip recently, they logged on to wbal.com to listen to the games. That meant the first pitch, given the 12-hour time difference, came at 7: 30 a.m.

"The Singaporeans," Evie Altman-Orbach said, "didn't know what make of us."

Can shirtless guys on 40-degree nights, a slew of newborns named B.J. and a rise in "sick days" during midweek afternoon games be far behind?

This is it, isn't it? This is what it's like when your team is on its way to the World Series?

How would The Fan know? The Fan -- this particular fan -- isn't quite sure what that's like. The Fan hadn't even moved to Baltimore the last time the Orioles went all the way, much less the two times before that. Tales of the glory days are familiar; The Fan has seen the grainy footage -- Brooks levitated in elation, Dempsey bellyflopping in the rain. But those are someone else's Orioles. The Fan's Orioles are Pete Harnisch stepping on a nail the night before the deciding game of 1989, and Tony Tarasco eternally poised to catch a fly ball that a 12-year-old miscreant swats into the bleachers in New York last year.

In other words, The Fan has known only the five stages of Orioles death -- disbelief, anger, negotiation, denial and, finally, acceptance that there's nowhere to go in October.

But this year, oh, this year. The Fan is in The Yard. She is wearing her lucky "Men in Black" T-shirt (with Brady and Cal, not Tommy Lee and Will) and may never wash it again the way things are going. The Fan has visions of sitting in Section 36 on Oct. 26, Game 7, ninth inning, Randy Myers on the mound, Andruw Jones at the plate, 3-and-2, he swings and ...

Someone stop The Fan before she hurts herself!

This is the lot of The Fan: As they say about second marriages, it's the triumph of hope over experience. The Fan has been betrayed every September, if not sooner, yet comes back for more every April.

And yet. This year is different. This is the year they mean when they say, just wait till next year.

"Definitely, I can feel it," insists Mel Tansill. "And I have proof."

Tansill, a longer-standing fan than The Fan, offers this irrefutable data: In 1983, the last year the Orioles went to the World Series, 124 more boys than girls were born in Baltimore. This year, the 20 babies born to his co-workers at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville -- plus the four "on deck," sonograms indicate -- are all boys.

Deja vu all over again.

Actually, The Fan is not as convinced by Tansill's statistics as by the fact that he actually sat down and compiled them. That he noticed all his colleagues' newborns were boys, made the leap that this was somehow cosmically connected to the Orioles and called the Health Department to verify the '83 numbers. That's classic pennant-fever behavior. Meaning bonkers, but just possibly on the money.

Tansill, who as a youngster was taken by his grandfather to his first O's World Series in 1966 ("the lousiest seats in Memorial Stadium, the greatest day of my life") backs up his stats with something even more reliable. Gut instinct.

"Do you remember the second week of the season, in Kansas City, it's an extra-inning game and it's snowing and B.J. crashes into the stands for a foul ball?" he says. "I'm thinking to myself, this team's got it."

A championship team has a certain aura -- that it is the team of destiny, that win or lose any particular game, in the end, its players will be the ones shampooing in champagne.

The Fan sensed that was true last year of -- sorry -- the Yankees. But this year, October so obviously belongs to the Orioles. Or rather, it would be obvious if the Orioles were anywhere but in Baltimore, The City That Frets. The O's have been in first place before, during and after every single game this season, and yet fans of The Fan's ilk secretly wait for the disaster that lurks ahead. We can't help it. It's the nellie nervosa, our local disorder. Anything really good eventually goes away, nothing still here can be as great as it seems -- until it, too, goes away and we realize how great it actually was. Exhibit A: Dem Colts.

So we've wrung our hands and tossed in our beds even during this season. Remember the angst before the July 31 trading deadline? We gotta get another pitcher. No, we gotta get a better DH. Baines -- yes, we must have Baines. We get Harold Baines. Not enough, we have to sign Pudge. Pudge is the missing piece. Oh, no, Ivan Rodriguez is staying in Texas! The season's over for us!

Chill? Never. To be an Orioles fan is to be forever vigilant.

This is why the aforementioned Evie and her husband Scott have set up a table on the sidewalk outside the park where entrepreneurs sell dollar hot dogs, five-dollar caps and $20 street signs for Roberto Alomar Ave. and Mike Mussina Dr.

Evie went to three different city offices to get a peddler's license. She printed petitions, ordered 500 T-shirts from a place in New York, then had to pay $140 to have them FedExed when UPS was struck.

"KEEP BRADY IN BALTIMORE," the T-shirts and petitions say, $6 for the former, nothing to sign the latter. Passers-by have one of two reactions -- either, "I didn't know he was leaving," or, "Amen, we can't lose him!"

Evie, a grant writer for nonprofit groups and a liberal activist ("I'm used to lost causes"), would never forgive herself if Brady became a free agent and she had done nothing to stop it.

"It's because of what happened to Jon Miller last year," she says. "I thought, what if that happens to Brady? What if they don't even make him an offer?"

The Fan signed Evie's petition. Losing Brady would mean losing more than just a player. There are 25 Orioles every year, but fewer and fewer Baltimore Orioles. The Fan loves most of the new-breed Orioles, but has a special place on her scorecard for the ones who have been here since or almost since they were rookies: Cal, of course, and Mussina and Brady. These will be the Orioles of The Fan's memories, when she's old and gray and grumbling about how much better everything was during her day. She'll talk about how Brady defined the mid-'90s Orioles in a way that the scrappy, working-class Joe Orsulak defined the teams of six and seven years ago. Brady was glamorous, uptown, showtime.

As baseball changes, The Fan holds on to what little part of the game she still owns. The players union can call a strike, the owners can dismantle the leagues, even the stadium management can leave us in the dark for hours before calling a game.

They're still our team, it's still our city, and it's still our year.

Thirty-four more games to go, and The Fan is on the edge of her seat. "It almost feels like opening day, doesn't it?" someone said recently as the crowd on the sidewalk swelled toward the gates for another sellout game.

The days are getting shorter, the World Series nearer. Like a rollercoaster, the final weeks promise sudden twists and surprise turns, breathless highs followed by wrenching plunges. Are you with The Fan? Are you ready for the ride?

Seat belts are optional.

"For the Birds," a fan's-eye view of the Orioles' race to the pennant, will appear occasionally in the Today section.

Fevered pitch

If you observe or participate in any outbursts of pennant madness, leave a detailed message for The Fan by calling Sundial at 410-783-1800 and entering the code 6180.

Pub Date: 8/27/97

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