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Stars back in their eyes, O's faithful foresee brighter days


ONE WAY TO TELL that big stars are back in town are the kinds of demands they make -- and have satisfied.

So everyone at the Orioles' FanFest yesterday got a big chuckle out of Rafael Palmeiro admitting that it wasn't a question of how much he bribed Jay Gibbons to get the No. 25 back. It was never going to be an issue.

Otherwise, there was only one other number that might have satisfied the 500-home run hitter.

"No. 8," Palmeiro said.

It's been a long time since the Orioles have boasted any player who had the credentials, statistics, records or big-star bravado to even suggest he was in the same league as Cal Ripken.

Now, they've got Palmeiro, who says he would prefer to wear his Orioles cap into the Hall of Fame -- if he should get to Cooperstown a few years after the Iron Man.

"Cal Ripken brought this to a different level," Palmeiro said yesterday about baseball in Baltimore, which some have noted hasn't been the same since Palmeiro left six years ago.

Lucky for Palmeiro, he's coming back on the upswing, joining Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez as the free-agent trio that means the Orioles are back in business.

"This is what I'm used to. I don't think the new guys, Tejada or Lopez, are aware of what goes on here, but this is what I wanted," Palmeiro said.

"This is a true baseball city. There's only a handful of them; St. Louis, the Yankees, Baltimore, Boston. That's the idea, to bring the excitement back, to bring the magic back."

Is it working?

It is if you're the three guys from Salisbury who left the shore at 6:30 a.m. yesterday. Carl Anderton, Chris Morgan and Chris Guy had the requisite dark circles under their eyes to prove it.

"Hey, there are Orioles fans on the Eastern Shore," Anderton said. "Right, guys?"

You'd think that 6:30 would have been an early enough start to achieve the No. 1 objective: get Palmeiro's autograph.

But it was sorry, fellas, for the three amigos at FanFest. They just missed the cutoff point in a very long, serpentine line at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Palmeiro, playing the role of old hand, was there to charm the crowd while Lopez -- from that dispassionate baseball burg of Atlanta -- was missing. Tejada, looking respectful and apologetic, issued a video from the Dominican Republic, basically saying he would make it up to the fans during spring training and beyond.

"I hope we can bring a lot of energy to the team. I'm going to be 100 percent every day to make the fans happy and make it a championship city," Tejada said, pounding his heart in Sammy Sosa fashion.

People clapped. The ticket line grew. The fans kept coming.

If there was going to be a backlash against the Orioles for raising ticket prices, it was going to be yesterday, when the team did what all major league baseball teams do to try to enhance their image in the community:

Hold a fan festival (at $10 a ticket) to coincide with the first official day of sales for single-game tickets.

Prices for 6,000 premium box seats went up nearly 29 percent, from $35 to $45. Terrace, field, club and bleacher prices also rose, anywhere from 11 to 15 percent. All told, about 60 percent of Camden Yards' 48,000 seats got a little more pricey.

Hence the opportunity for backlash, especially from fans who watched the Orioles hand out $123 million in new contracts.

These are the same fans who have endured six seasons of a minor league facsimile taking up position on a field that used to boast stars like Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina and Palmeiro.

These are the same fans who for six seasons have showed their stripes and mettle by lauding the work of unpolished young players like Jay Gibbons, Jerry Hairston and Sidney Ponson.

They were there, up until a 4-32 implosion at the end of 2002 prompted even the most patient fans to flee Camden Yards and turn off the radio and TV.

Now, they say they're coming back -- with sheepish smiles, with the rust of reluctant hope flaking off.

"We kind of slacked off. My girlfriend and I used to buy the Sunday games and split them. The last two years, we didn't. I'm hoping this year's more exciting," said Arlene Warner, a nurse from Randallstown.

Warner held a season schedule and was studying the games she wanted to buy tickets for: Yankees, San Francisco, Boston, Oakland.

"Ticket prices go up, but we don't mind paying. I've got a game each month. I'm glad to see Palmeiro back. I was sad to see him go."

The Orioles have sold more than 1,200 new season-ticket accounts, said spokesman Bill Stetka. That's more than the 900 they sold all of last February.

A year ago, co-GMs Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie took the stage at FanFest and tried their best to spin the coming season. It wasn't easy.

"You go up there and you're feeling like a politician, full of campaign promises. But we did what we said we had to do. We had to fire up the warehouse and fix our off-field personnel," Flanagan said.

"This time, it's a lot easier. We feel good about where we are. I've been thinking about this for 15 years."

The big stars are coming back, with a sense of responsibility and purpose about restoring the Orioles to their place among the proud, elite franchises. So are the fans.

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