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Homecoming for Hargroves hard on nerves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- Mike Hargrove's stomach began to churn yesterday as he drove to Jacobs Field. "Butterflies," he called them, wings fluttering more rapidly as the place that once had been his second home came into view.

Hargrove hadn't been here since after the 1999 season, accompanied by his wife, Sharon. It remains one of the hardest days of their lives.

"It was to clean out Mike's office," she said.

Fired by the Cleveland Indians despite winning a fifth straight division title, unable to deliver the world championship that served as the front office's barometer for success, Hargrove was making his first appearance since being named Orioles manager in November.

Friends and stadium employees waited to greet him. The local media gathered outside the dugout more than three hours before the game, dwarfing the interest in Cal Ripken's return from the disabled list.

"I didn't know what my reaction would be," he said.

Awake since 6:30 a.m., only four hours after bursting through the door of his Richfield, Ohio, home, Hargrove motored up the interstate and spotted the toothbrush-shaped lights.

"It's a fairly unique configuration," he said. "I kind of caught my breath a little bit. But once I got to the clubhouse, it was good to be an Oriole. It was good to be wearing black and orange."

Hargrove easily found his way to the visitors' side, though he hadn't walked there much in the past. He stopped by to congratulate former Orioles manager Davey Johnson after the Indians were eliminated from the playoffs in 1996. The opposite dugout, where microphones and tape recorders were shoved in his face before batting practice, offered a different perspective.

"It's going to be interesting seeing the game from the other side of the field for the first time," he said. "If there's a play at first base that I have to argue, I won't have to run nearly as far."

Once unable to move off the hot seat no matter how many games he won, Hargrove was treated like a returning hero. Asked if he was appreciated more now than when he managed the Indians, he said, "No, I just think people are more apt to express that appreciation."

The fans were given that chance before last night's game when Hargrove carried out the lineup card for the only time this season. They stood to applaud as he walked to home plate, and the noise grew louder when he headed back to the dugout. Hargrove, who usually assigns that duty to bench coach Jeff Newman, raised his right arm and waved.

A day earlier, Hargrove had expressed reservations about going to Cleveland and all the attention his arrival would bring. Take the hype that accompanied his Opening Day assignment against the Indians at Camden Yards, and multiply it by 50.

"In a lot of ways, I'm looking forward to it," he said, "and in other ways, I'm not looking forward to it."

Interview requests began pouring in before he left Baltimore. Exhausted from the previous night's game, Hargrove slept through a scheduled 8 a.m. chat with a Cleveland radio station on Thursday. He called later to apologize.

"When you go to bed at 3 a.m., you're not up at 8," Sharon said. "So that started out negative. I'm sure people are going, 'Oh, this is great, Mike Hargrove already is blowing us off.' Everything just becomes too big."

And not just for the manager. Sharon flew out Thursday night rather than watch the game at Camden Yards, using some of her nervous energy to water plants and clean up around the house.

She's already dealing with the stress of having two daughters engaged -- the second, Melissa, broke the news on Sunday -- a daughter and son in college and another daughter beginning junior high school. Now, comes all the emotional baggage attached to this three-game series, one of the first to sell out when tickets went on sale.

"I haven't looked forward to it at all. And the closer it gets, the more apprehensive I get and the more I worry about it," she said. "It's going to be draining. It'll be fun to see the ushers and season-ticket holders and fans that I've known for a long, long time. But I'm not looking forward to every person I see asking, 'How do you feel? What's going on? How do you like Baltimore?' I'll be glad when this is over. It'll never be this hard again.

"The last game we were at the Jake, I remember sitting there thinking that Mike was probably going to lose his job. I'm looking around and thinking, 'Wow, it's been so nice.' But now, 11 months later, I feel like things have been so positive in Baltimore. If you take away the aspect of trying to keep our family together, it's been better for all of us. It's good to see Mike enjoying baseball again."

Sharon recalls looking down at the field on Opening Day and seeing the Indians taking batting practice. She soon learned that old habits, and allegiances, were hard to break.

"I said, 'Man, I haven't seen us do that in a long time.' Then I thought, 'That isn't us anymore.' About that time an usher asked me, 'Are you lost?' I looked at him and thought, 'Oh, geez, where am I? Who am I? What am I doing?' It just hit me right in the face that everything in our lives was different. But we've been able to adjust and I'm so tickled about that. And the main reason it's been easy is because Mike is happy."

The huge ovation that Hargrove received before his first game in Baltimore still touches her heart. "I got so choked up. It was just wonderful. That's when I first started to really feel like, 'We're going to be OK here.'"

The Indians began last night one game ahead of Boston in the wild-card race, a more realistic goal than catching the first-place Chicago White Sox.

"I want Baltimore to sweep them because it's our team," Sharon said, "but I doubly want them to because that would get their little butts out of the wild-card race. But feeling this way surprises me and bothers me.

"You don't turn off your feelings for all those people who, at this time last year, were a big part of your life. Mike and I gave a lot off the field here and I miss that. Our roots run deep. This is home to me, though I love Baltimore and it's been very good to us."

With his last interview completed, Hargrove finished his post-game meal, showered and made the drive back home. Members of his coaching staff will stop by after today's game. There will be other visitors, more stories, more memories.

"I look for this to be a pretty sleepless weekend," Sharon said. "It's 'Sleepless in Cleveland.' You just want to soak everything in."

Orioles today

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland

Time: 1:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Pat Rapp (6-10, 5.92) vs. Indians' Bartolo Colon (12-8, 4.43)

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