Baltimore Orioles fans divided themselves into two general categories this dreadful season. There were those so aggravated with the Orioles' dispiriting play -- especially early in the year when the team seemed in such a rush to get out of the pennant race -- that they couldn't wait for the whole mess to draw to a close.
Then there were the fans at Camden Yards yesterday.
Even after the team's second straight year of underperformance, fans yesterday demonstrated yet again that the Orioles have not come close to depleting their reservoir of good will.
With absolutely nothing on the line -- with Cal already on winter hiatus and Mike Mussina stuck at 18 wins -- more than 47,000 still showed up for the last game. And not just showed up. When the players emptied the benches for a non-brawl, fans stood and cheered as the Orioles bullpen ran en masse onto the field to join the non-fray. They cheered even louder when B. J. Surhoff gunned down a Red Sox runner at home plate in the eighth, thereby saving the day -- if only for two more innings.
There is much to be disappointed about in the Orioles' 1999 season, but recrimination wasn't the prevailing mood yesterday. "Yes, it's been a disappointing season," said Mike Sprague, who was at the game with his wife Kenna, "but I love the Orioles."
They obtained their final game tickets in the spring, and in his heart, Sprague harbored the hope that the whole season might come down to this day. "I thought they'd be in the running for the division championship," said Sprague, the owner of an insurance agency in Charles County. "We thought today could really be something. It's a shame it doesn't mean anything."
But he'll be back again in the spring, this time with a new Orioles fan in tow. Pointing to Kenna's rounded stomach, Sprague said there will be an addition to the family by then, "a die-hard Orioles fan," he assured.
Everyone seemed in a forgiving mood. If anything, many were sorry to see even this campaign conclude. "I'm never happy to see a season end," said Tom Young of Columbia, who sat shirtless in the bleachers with his 3-year-old son, Matthew. He listed the bright side of the Orioles year: Surhoff's determined performance, pitcher Scott Erickson's rebound. The Orioles were done in by early injuries, according to his diagnosis, and Albert Belle didn't hit as well as expected. "But," he added, already displaying off-season optimism, "he'll do better next year."
With nothing at stake in the game, only a fool could miss the affection people feel for the game itself. "I love baseball, there's no way I'd miss this," said Geoff Livingston, a public relations man from Arlington who made a pilgrimage to six other parks this summer. "I'd much rather be here than at any football game. This is a gentleman's game. Football is about violence."
Jim Belliveau, a Marylander who moved to Portland, Maine, last year to pursue a romance, traveled more than 2,000 miles to return to Baltimore for the opener and the closer at Camden Yards this season. Why bother? He seemed to regard the question as idiotic. "Because after this, there won't be any baseball again until April. You've got to be here today."
Deb Lambert, Sharon Van Culin and Patsy Lovelace understand that sentiment entirely. The three women from Rising Sun have gained a measure of local fame for their devotion to the Orioles. They attend about 40 games a year, and not demurely either. They each wear fiery Baltimore orange, to make sure they can be spotted in any crowd, especially by cameramen. They said they were bereft about the closing of the season.
"It's so sad," Lambert said, "the last game of the century."
Listening to them, the off-season sounds like an endlessly dreary countdown until Opening Day. "What are we going to do now?" Van Culin bemoaned. "I mean what are we going to do now?"
Happily, though, they have an answer. They've already lined up many baseball-oriented events for off-season weekends. There's the movie "For The Love of the Game," and visits to the Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth museums. Then there's Harold Baines Day in St. Michael's in January and, don't forget, Fanfest. Before long, it'll be spring training and baseball again.
"You can have the worst day at work imaginable," said Lovelace, "but how bad can it be if you've got tickets in your hand for that night?"
Van Culin and Lambert nodded in agreement before heading back to their seats in the bleachers for the last two innings of Orioles baseball in 1999. "I know," Van Culin said in parting, "it's a sickness."
Pub Date: 10/04/99