Baseball limps back to the Yard


So a baseball strike was avoided. Both sides OK'd a luxury tax that ought to curb the buy-a-title trend in the game that's supposed to be fair. America's game.

Minnesota, the small-market team fingered for contraction, will win its division. Oakland's record winning streak will count. Travis Driskill, the 31-year-old O's rookie who slaved 10 years in the minors, all the while dreaming of "just one pitch" in the bigs, will have tossed a major-league season. Everybody hates Bud Selig.

All's right with the pastime. Or is it?

Here in Baltimore, where the O's are falling like buckshot birds, it's hard to tell. On Tuesday, they brought their nine-game losing streak home, playing the Yard for the first time since the suits shook hands. Were the fans still mad? How would they react?

Depended, of course, on your point of view. The heat of a blistering day receding, a gentle breeze plied Eutaw Street, circumnavigating Babe Ruth Plaza, redolent of fall. Vendors -- half the normal number -- sold caps, pretzels and water. Ushers stood watch in chirpy orange and black, ordered, as ever, not to speak to the press. "Yeah, I'm glad there was no strike," said a peanut man two hours before the game. "I need every dime."

A security guard, on watch since 9 a.m., saw 10 walk-up ticket sales all day. "Bad team," he said. "School started today. Football's opening. The strike talk didn't help any. It [stunk]. How much do the players want, anyway?"

Normally aswirl, the scene was nearly void of fans. A lonesome four slouched in the shade of the mighty Babe. They'd driven down from Spring Grove, Pa. One, Tony Bortner, a brickmaker, wore wraparound shades and a sleeveless tee, his tattoo proclaiming "Death Before Dishonor." "We had the tickets already," he said. "Figured we might as well use 'em. But I'll tell you this: If they'd struck, I'd have never come to a game again. Period. End of story."

The walk to Home Run Plaza, the players' entrance, normally bustles with jabbering fans, but no one save a single cop was there. Under the burgundy awning slumped six autograph seekers, their faces sour. "I took the day off to get here by 1:30," said Dave Hunt, a longtime O's fan. "That's when the [Texas Rangers] started arriving. Know how many stopped to sign? Three. None of the stars."

A-Rod -- Alex Rodriguez, baseball's best and richest player -- had told the press he'd give back half his salary if it would keep the season alive. Today? He strode right by, cell phone at his ear.

"Guess he thinks they're in first," sniffed Anthony Dixon of Philadelphia. The Rangers trailed the West-leading A's by 26 games.

Total immersion

Inside, sunlight kindled the bleachers in right, leaving the rest of the ballpark in shadow. Five o'clock had come and gone. Only ushers were there, huddled in groups to strategize for the meaningless game to come. Players in black meandered the field. Batting practice wafted lonely whap-, whap-, whapping sounds.

But look -- there was a fan. Section 38, 12 rows back of the plate, sunk in his seat, he munched cold chicken wrapped in foil, working a scraggly beard, wearing a distant look.

Terry Theise, 49, it turns out, is a Silver Spring wine merchant, a long-ago college dropout now lost in what has become his personal form of meditation. He learned it at the first game he ever saw, when Willie Mays put on a 3-for-4 show at the Polo Grounds.

Theise, there with his dad, saw the Hall of Famer's greatness, but more than that, he glimpsed the soul of the game he loves.

"It's not about numbers," he says. "It's about pace."

He gets to a game when the gates open and settles in. He soaks in the whole of the empty park. He watches it slowly fill. When the action sharpens and the game begins, he never leaves his seat. Afterward, he stays till the whole place empties. "Baseball offers an experience no other sport does," he says. "That's what I pay to be a part of. A fan who comes late and leaves early doesn't get what it's about."

He's the sort of man Peter Angelos counts on. He comes a dozen times a year. He was equal parts O's fan before and after the "purge" last year, when the team dumped Mike Bordick, Will Clark, B.J. Surhoff and, in effect, Mike Mussina. Didn't bother him. "This team lacks talent," he says, eyes on the field, "but if you're around a place long enough, it's your team anyway. They're your guys. You know them. Doesn't matter if they win or lose."

A chat with Theise covers wine and writing, business and history, family and film. (His chicken came from Lexington Market, "the Fellini Satyricon of Baltimore.") He weaves those around the game, a spectacle his knowledge helps him savor as he might a fine Bordeaux. His eyes never leave the field.

"I'd have been sad if they'd gone on strike," he says, adding that friends of his never returned after the stoppage in 1994. "But I'd have come back when it was over. This is baseball."

Bouncing back

By 5:45, fans were filing up aisles all around, slowly filling the place to half-capacity. Theise knew they would. "It's like any other game tonight," he says with a smile, polishing off his chicken.

A rush of kids raced by him to the Rangers' dugout just below. There stood the mighty A-Rod, signing shirts and balls before a fast-gathering throng. Theise's son Max, 16, was among them. So was Hunt, the man snubbed earlier.

Before batting practice ended, sun still lighting the Flag Court, Bortner, the Pennsylva-nia brickmaker, nearly trampled other fans as he ran in the direction of the Rangers dugout, perhaps to seek autographs of his own. He wore a lefty's ballglove. Face trickling sweat, he grinned like a man who had just saved the World Series. "I was out in the bleachers," he said. "I caught three flyballs! I've got to call home and tell them."

Baseball and its fans -- the frustrated, the fickle, the faithful and the born-again -- were back at Oriole Park.

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