IT WASN'T YOUR imagination. The crowd at Camden Yards was more energized during the Orioles' loss to the Yankees on Monday night than for any other game this season. Not even a 4-3 loss could dampen the feel-good atmosphere.
What made Monday night so different? A 22-year-old rookie, John Parrish, was pitching for the Orioles. A left-hander from Lancaster, Pa., he threw seven strong innings in his major-league debut, striking out nine Yankees with a wicked curveball.
The crowd ate it up. At least the slim majority cheering for the Orioles did.
If it wasn't obvious before, it certainly is now: That's all the fans want to see as the Orioles lumber toward a third straight losing season with an expensive, veteran team. The fans want to see youth, energy, hunger, drive. A hint of promise. A dash of hope.
They'll take that any day over the losing drudgery of the past three seasons, even if it means continuing to lose.
The only one who hasn't figured that out is Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who has continued to force-feed a failing diet of veterans-for-hire down the fans' throats and balked at attempts to make the club younger, fearful that focusing on the future would cost him at the gate now.
His intentions are noble enough, if woefully shortsighted, but the reality is that many fans, searching for any reason to make the season interesting, are now breaking Orioles games into two, basic categories: Those in which youngsters Luis Matos or Ivanon Coffie play, and those in which the same, old Orioles are in the lineup.
In other words, games about the future and games about that dramatic race for fourth place in the American League East.
Now there's a third youngster, Parrish, on the list of wanna-sees, after manager Mike Hargrove's announcement last night that Parrish would replace Jose Mercedes in the starting rotation.
"Our minor-league people have done a real nice job of bringing these guys along and getting them ready," Hargrove said.
Imagine, three young guys in an Orioles uniform at the same time. Holy decade's worth!
While they're at it, the front office should call up five more prospects, or seven, injecting some life into a season going nowhere.
Angelos thinks the stands would empty, and no, he probably wouldn't sell the same 3.5 million tickets he always sells, but if the response at Monday night's game is any indication, the damage would be far lighter than he thinks.
Hey, it's not as if the fans are flocking to the park to watch Delino DeShields and Mike Timlin, anyway. Isn't that obvious by now? They're flocking to the park to watch a losing team because it's still a great place to hang out, even when the Orioles are 13 games under .500.
And since the Orioles are going to lose, anyway, why not lose in a much more interesting, productive and promising way, with a blend of young players in the mix?
In the club's defense, it has had few such players to bring up until recently, as a bone-dry farm system coughed and sputtered through the '80s and '90s. Criticized for relying to a fault on free agents, the front office actually had little choice.
But times are changing, however slowly. Matos, Coffie and Parrish are here and "more than holding their own," Hargrove said last night.
Jerry Hairston, the future at second base, should arrive soon and stay this time if the club has any sense. Ryan Minor could be a factor if he ever stayed healthy.
That's one class, and a younger, even more promising class is burbling in the low minors featuring such players as outfielders Tim Raines Jr., Larry Bigbie, Keith Reed and Papy Ndungidi, and pitchers Richard Stahl and John Stephens - all names to file away for later use.
For the first time in years, the Orioles actually have young, homegrown players on the way.
And if they're serious about having a quality farm system again after all these years, they have to bring their best prospects up and filter them into the major-league mix from time-to-time - a practice that encourages and motivates all players in the system and, in theory, leads to more inspired performances.
No, Matos and Coffie probably aren't ready to hit major-league pitching, although Matos hit his fourth major-league double last night and seems to be getting adjusted.
But regardless, their youth, speed, defense and energy are welcomed, and let's face it, at this point, there's nothing to lose as long as the players aren't overmatched.
As the season drones on, all the fans want to see is Matos racing into the right-center gap to run down a line drive that the Orioles' other outfielders wouldn't reach. Or Coffie using his speed to turn a single into a double. Or Parrish using his three-pitch assortment to bedevil a good team and offer at least a sliver of hope for the future of the starting rotation.
It doesn't matter if they thrive, or make a difference, or win. That's not the point.
They represent the future, and given the state of the present, sad as it is, the future is all anyone wants to see.