JON MILLER remembers his first day in Baltimore as the Orioles play-by-play announcer. It was 1983, and he was just up from spring training, attending a workout at Memorial Stadium the day before Opening Day.
"They put us on buses, and we headed down to the Inner Harbor where they wanted me to emcee a pep rally or something," says Miller. He could scarcely believe the sight that greeted him.
"There must have been ... [40,000] or 50,000 people down there. They stretched as far as the eye could see. I was pretty astounded because the team had lost the previous year. They had put on a stirring stretch run but got hammered on the final day. I had just come from Boston where no matter what happened, if you didn't win, you screwed up. It was an astounding thing for me to see an outpouring of affection for this ball club even though they had fallen short the year before. It was the first indication that things were going to be a little different in Baltimore."
When Cal Ripken Jr. retired from the Orioles last year, it was not just the end of the most remarkable career in the history of the franchise, it also marked the loss of the last link with Orioles teams that generated the kind of passion Baltimore can only dream about now.
It was when fans cheered without being prompted by the scoreboard, when they spontaneously rocked Memorial Stadium with chants of "Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die" as Eddie Murray strode to the plate.
All that was needed to arouse a flagging crowd was a few waves of a cowboy hat from a cab driver sitting in the cheap seats. Then Wild Bill Hagy would contort his body into a crude representation of the letters in Orioles and the noise was deafening.
"Even before Camden Yards and Cal Ripken, there was this special relationship in Baltimore," says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "The Orioles didn't win every year, but they were almost always very good. And they played the game the way it was supposed to be played. People talked about the Orioles' system, the Orioles' way .... The word is overused, but it was a classy organization."
It was an intense love affair between city and team that lasted for well over a decade. Now those days seem like memories of good times in a marriage gone sour. What is not clear is if that relationship can ever be revived or if it has fallen permanent victim to the merciless marketplace that rules in contemporary professional sports.
For some the decline of affection for the Orioles is simply a matter of bad baseball management.
"Baltimore blew it," says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. "They did the worst thing you can do, which is to shell out a lot of money on old players who were not that good anymore, over the hill. When you do that, you lose money, you have to retreat. You end up going through a long period of rebuilding. Throw in the waning effect of Camden Yards and the outcome is what you see."
Miller remembers that after the 1988 season started with 21 straight losses, management tore up the team and started over.
"The remarkable thing was that the fans were all behind it," he says. "I really learned something about Orioles fans at that point. They got young players, the best athletes they could find, and promised the fans one thing: that they will hustle and play with heart. The fans said, 'OK, that's what we want.'"
Now doing play-by-play for the San Francisco Giants, Miller says he hears that might be happening again in Baltimore, especially under manager Mike Hargrove, who seems molded in the traditional Orioles style.
But it will be difficult to revive the old relationship. Many can point to the event that alienated their affection for the Orioles. The loss of Miller's well-modulated voice in 1996 is often noted. So are the firing of manager Davey Johnson, the signing of malcontent Albert Belle and the departures of Rafael Palmiero and Mike Mussina.
Ironically, the seeds of such decisions were planted in the same year that the love affair between city and team blossomed -- 1979.
Baltimore had been a Colts town, ignoring the Orioles even as they played some of the best baseball in the major leagues. Then, the erratic acts of Colts owner Bob Irsay alienated that affection, so the city turned to the Orioles. The team responded, winning the 1979 American League pennant and taking the World Series against Pittsburgh to seven games before losing. The romance was on, hot and heavy.
That year Jerold C. Hoffberger, who had been involved with the team since it arrived from St. Louis in 1954, had been pressured by his family to sell. Edward Bennett Williams, a prominent Washington lawyer, was the buyer.
The lawyers had arrived.
And with them came a mentality that killed the vaunted Orioles Way and eventually poisoned the well that quenched the thirst of the growing numbers of fans.
Gone was Hoffberger's long-range community-building approach that emphasized stability on the field and off. In its place was the lawyers' well-meaning but short-sighted determination to win the next case.
Hoffberger left the Orioles with a general manager who shared his outlook -- Hank Peters. Though he had produced the World Series teams of 1979 and 1983, Peters wasn't action-oriented enough for the meddling Williams, who replaced Peters in 1987 with trademeister Roland Hemond. Peters went to Cleveland where he was soon joined by another Orioles castoff -- John Hart. They built the Indians into one of the most successful franchise of the 1990s. Back in Baltimore. Hemond traded Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis.
Even when the Orioles re-emerged as contenders and set attendance records in the mid-1990s under plaintiff attorney Peter Angelos' ownership, the feeling about the team was not the same.
The team leaned heavily on the free-agent market, filled not with Orioles, but with hired hands wearing the uniform. The revolving door spun incessantly.
Now there is talk of returning to the old ways, building up the farm system, stocking the team with hustling youngsters. But it might be that the old love affair can never be rekindled.
"At least to people of our generation, there is a less charming atmosphere around baseball in general," Costas says. "With Ripken gone, with the Orioles not contending, with the novelty worn off Camden Yards, now you are looking at some of the flaws in the game that were not as evident before.
"Like almost everything in pop culture, the volume has been turned up," says Costas, who wrote the 2000 book Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball. "There's a greater feeling of crassness about it all. It's always been a business, but it doesn't have to be a business so completely that it overwhelms all the charms of it."
David Andrews, a sociologist in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that the relationship between teams and fans has fundamentally changed in the last few decades as sports has become another commodity in the marketplace.
"Teams like the Orioles are trying to attract customers," he says. "They assume people are just consumers and they have a marketplace kind of ideology and rhetoric. When all they are concerned with is the product, sport loses its unique aspect."
Costas says that when the transaction between fan and team becomes purely financial, romance between teams and cities is almost impossible.
"Instead of hoping that your team wins, you begin to demand it, " he says. "It's like you bought a car and if it doesn't work, you want to know why. When a team doesn't win, instead of disappointment or heartbreak, now you have anger and resentment."
Andrews refers to the work of Richard Giulianotti of the University of Aberdeen who has written that an increasing number of British soccer fans are what he calls flaneurs, the French term that emerged in the 19th century for someone who strolled through the cityscape, window shopping at the stores that were beginning to appear along city streets.
These flaneurs, Giulianotti writes, are replacing the dedication of the fan -- short for fanatic -- with a cool ironic detachment as they choose sports among the panoply of entertainment offerings.
"The flaneur flits from one leisure experience to another with no real emotional attachment or bond to a team," Andrews says. "People have an irrational attachment to sports that is lost once it is rationalized along commercial lines. ... Once you start measuring value for money in terms of the entertainment dollar -- a movie against a baseball game -- then it's not surprising when you have a bad team that people lose interest."
Andrews says sports have always reflected their times, and today is no exception, with a worldwide emphasis on the marketplace.
So players are judged by the size of their contracts and franchises by the size of their attendance. Teams aren't in cities anymore, they're in markets. The World Series, that once commanded your attention in the middle of the day, is just another prime time television show. People want to know the ratings as much as the score.
Andrews says evidence exists that those running the games are aware of what has happened, but he sees sports caught in a Catch-22 of its own making.
"I don't see any way out of that conundrum," he says. "Because the only way to get out is to brand it and market it differently."
Suffice it to say, marketing departments don't come up with a brand like Wild Bill Hagy.