O's lobby D.C. fans with personal touch


WASHINGTON - Blessed are those who went as fans to yesterday's Orioles FanFest at Farragut Square.

About 2,000 of them did some of the things they might normally do at Camden Yards - eating hot dogs, gulping cola, slathering the chocolate of ice cream sandwiches across their faces and admiring favorite players. But the food was free, and the players gave autographs and posed on request for pictures.

The event included Orioles team members such as manager Mike Hargrove, coach Eddie Murray, and players B. J. Surhoff, Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine and Mike Timlin. They signed baseballs and photographs.

The only thing not given away was an indication of how severely a baseball team in the Washington area might broadside the Orioles' hold in the nation's capital and surrounding areas.

A lot of those attending, such as 42-year-old Lindsey Feldman and her husband Mike, 41, were faithful Orioles fans who didn't foresee any change in habits that have developed over the years, such as regular trips to Memorial Stadium and, now, Camden Yards.

The Feldmans, from Montclair, Va., said their oldest son was born in the rookie season of Cal Ripken Jr. In the years since, they said it was common for them to ask a child in need of a reminder of the right thing to do, "Would Cal do that?" or, for example, "Would Cal do his homework?"

"If Northern Virginia got a team, it wouldn't change much; we're Oriole fans," Lindsey Feldman said, standing next to one of her younger sons, Alex, 12. "I go back to Brooks Robinson, so I'd have a hard time being anything other than an Orioles fan."

But for others who aren't as passionate, convenience would make them support another team if it were to enter the area. For those who don't beat a hot trail north to Baltimore unless there's a baseball game, the hour-plus drive to Camden Yards wears on them.

Hussain Jaffri, a 27-year-old network administrator from Herndon, Va., near Dulles International Airport, has been following the Orioles a long time but said: "If you live in Herndon, it's hard to go to Camden Yards for every game. If there's another team, you can go see that."

Loyalty comes into question with recent speculation that the Expos may leave Montreal for Washington. That would give the Orioles unwanted company in what - if you count Washington and Baltimore together - constitutes the nation's fourth-largest media market.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has objected, believing that a D.C.-area team would infringe on the territorial rights of his team, which owns a store across the street from the national park where yesterday's event was held.

With the "game" many talked yesterday, though, Angelos has nothing to worry about.

Younger Washington-area fans remembered Ripken becoming baseball's most durable player, as well as the pennant runs the Orioles enjoyed during the mid-to-late 1990s.

Older fans recalled the Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, and reminisced about Jim Palmer's magazine ads and Earl Weaver's histrionics. Tellingly, Murray's line of admirers yesterday was the longest of all the Orioles who appeared.

"I didn't know that Eddie Murray was going to be here; it's a great thrill to see him," said John Noyes, 18, a Silver Spring resident who came to the FanFest with his brother Michael, 8.

Noyes, like many attending the event, was excited about the possibility of the Expos moving to the area (with the choice it would bring) but resolute in his devotion to the Orioles.

In one breath, Noyes said: "I heard about the Expos, and it would be great." In another: "I'm an Orioles fan until I die."

With the D.C. issue as context, the Orioles seemed like just another vendor with something to hawk, not unlike the stands with ties, with pretzels, and one with "Go Burrito Go" on the side.

But the Orioles' FanFest in downtown Washington, the team's second - after one last year - was simply an appreciation of the fans, said John Greeley, the Orioles' director of retail operations.

Greeley, who supervises the team's memorabilia stores, said another team's move into the area would change little, and that there are plans for a 2001 event in York, Pa., where the Orioles have another store, in addition to the ones in Washington and Baltimore.

"My perspective is going to be business as usual," he said, adding that the team did similar D.C. events in the 1980s. "A lot of our fans will stay with us, so we want to keep serving the fans in the same way."

For players, it was a chance to get some positive reinforcement, especially hours after being shut out by the Florida Marlins.

In addition to being asked how he throws his fastball, and where he lives, pitcher Mike Timlin also got a few pats on the back, despite the team's 40-52 record.

"If you have one person encouraging and 10 people booing, you're only going to hear the booing," Timlin said. "It's satisfying to know that there are people who [appreciate] what you're doing."

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