LEADING ROLES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The souvenir stand tells the story of a proud franchise awakening from a deep slumber.

Don Eney has been stocking the shelves at Camden Yards since 1997, a time when Orioles fans would line up to buy jerseys with Cal Ripken's No. 8, Brady Anderson's No. 9 and Mike Mussina's No. 35.

Those stars left, and that era ended. Sales plummeted. For the past two years, Eney has filled the shelves with nameless and numberless Orioles jerseys. The rare fan who wanted a Jay Gibbons jersey or a Melvin Mora jersey had to wait.

"We ordered them blank," Eney said.

The Orioles were no-names, indeed. Every winter, the fans would cross their fingers, hoping that would change.

Then, finally, it did.

With one huge spending spree, the Orioles have brought the big names back to Baltimore for a season that starts Sunday night, on national television.

The Orioles spent $99 million on shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro for reasons that go well beyond what they can do for the middle of the batting order.

Eney, a retail general manager for Aramark Sports and Entertainment, has already placed orders for hundreds of customized jerseys with Tejada's No. 10, Lopez's No. 18 and Palmeiro's No. 25.

He expects sales to skyrocket, especially if the Orioles start winning.

Drawing attention

This is what happens when a team has an offseason like the one the Orioles just completed. The national media take notice. Franchise hero Brooks Robinson gives his stamp of approval. Even the mayor gets excited.

"One of the things I've noticed since becoming mayor is that nothing brings people together across race and class lines like a winning sports team," Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a recent e-mail. "We saw it when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

"A lot more people are fired up about the O's chances this year. I know I'm planning on making a few more games. It just feels different - I mean it snowed last year on Opening Day."

O'Malley obviously knew it was a bad omen when last year's season opener was delayed because of snow. The Orioles eventually won that game against the Cleveland Indians, but they went on to finish their sixth consecutive losing season at 71-91.

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, who had spent their first year in office largely in an evaluation mode, started making some swift changes. They fired manager Mike Hargrove and replaced him with New York Yankees first base coach Lee Mazzilli.

Then, they began adding big-name players.

Tejada, who won the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player award with the Oakland Athletics, signed for $72 million over six years.

Lopez, who hit 43 home runs for the Atlanta Braves last season, signed for $22.5 million over three years.

And then Palmeiro, who slugged his 500th career home run with the Texas Rangers last year, returned to the Orioles on a one-year, $4.5 million deal with an option for 2005.

Moves overdue

For Robinson, a Hall of Fame third baseman, those additions went a long way toward restoring the franchise's credibility.

"They had to make a move, that's all," Robinson said in a phone interview from California. "Palmeiro should have never left [after the 1998 season]. Mussina should have never left [after the 2000 season]. It was a matter of not really pulling the trigger when they should have.

"You can't do that in today's game. It's different. It's a players' game. They've got a lot of options on where they want to play.

"What's happening now gives me a lot of enthusiasm for the future. When you finish 10 to 20 games under .500 every year, it's not fun for anyone, especially for me."

The lean years have taken their toll. In 1997, the Orioles drew 3.71 million fans to Camden Yards, and attendance has dropped steadily every year since, slipping to 2.45 million last season.

Ripken retired in 2001, and the team's marketing efforts sputtered. The best-selling Orioles player the past two years was Gibbons, but even his merchandise sold about eight times less than Ripken's at its peak, Eney said.

Little wonder Kevin Kenney, Aramark's resident district manager, called the Dec. 18 Tejada signing "an early Christmas present."

That was the first domino to fall. Tejada was the Orioles' biggest acquisition since they signed Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract in 1998.

"With Miguel, we get a true marquee superstar," said Spiro Alafassos, Orioles executive director of communications. "He's a potential MVP who is not only going to endear himself to fans with his smile and his personality, but with the fact that he's going to win games for us.

"He's going to hit game-winning home runs. He's going to carry the team."

Tejada, 27, is used to the adoration. When he won the MVP award, the president of his native Dominican Republic, Hipolito Mejia, invited him to the capital for a celebration. People lined the streets in Tejada's hometown of Bani just to cheer on the motorcade.

Developing national appeal

Already this spring, Tejada has graced the covers of The Sporting News and USA Today Sports Weekly wearing his new black and orange uniform. The Orioles' promotions department routinely pulls him from the clubhouse for various photo shoots and television commercials.

"That's part of my job," Tejada said.

Lopez, 33, accepts his fame with more reluctance. In Atlanta, he was a fan favorite, but he was also overshadowed by the likes of Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

So it was a bit jarring for Lopez when he arrived at spring training and kept getting dragged to photo shoots with Tejada and Palmeiro.

"I'm not used to that," Lopez said in his quiet voice. "In Atlanta, I was in the middle of everybody. I love to be in that position, because I don't have to have all the attention from the media. I like to concentrate and play baseball and just focus on the game."

Lopez is also new to the level of success he had last season. He had the worst season of his career in 2002 but came back last year to have the best offensive season of any catcher in the major leagues, batting .328 and driving in 109 runs.

"With Javy, if we get anywhere near that production, he will be a great pickup," Alafassos said, when asked about the benefits of signing Lopez from a marketing standpoint. "And it doesn't hurt that he'll be very popular with the ladies."

Then there's Palmeiro, who is as well-known nationally as a Viagra pitchman as he is for his Hall of Fame-caliber accomplishments.

Palmeiro, 39, has seemingly always been overshadowed on his teams by other superstar players. At Mississippi State, it was Will Clark. With the Orioles, from 1994 to 1998, it was Ripken. With the Rangers, this last go-around, it was Ivan Rodriguez and then Alex Rodriguez.

This time with the Orioles, it's Tejada and Lopez. The difference is Palmeiro already has a history with the fans.

"Coming in, they know he's a Hall of Famer who spent a big chunk of his career putting together his Hall of Fame numbers in Baltimore," said Alafassos, who oversees the team's advertising and promotion. "And they'll never forget that."

From the minute Tejada, Lopez and Palmeiro arrived in spring training, there was a noticeable difference in camp.

Reporters for Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine came to do stories.

"[ESPN's] Peter Gammons was down here early," said Orioles public relations director Bill Stetka. "And I haven't seen Peter here in three years."

Gibbons took it all in quietly from a distant clubhouse locker. The presence of Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez pushed him to sixth in the batting order. It also pushed him from the limelight.

"I've probably had half the interviews this year that I did last year," Gibbons said. "Now, it's just so much more relaxing. I can just go out there and play baseball."

Others promoted, too

That said, the Orioles have still used their core group of young players, such as Gibbons, Jerry Hairston and Larry Bigbie, for various promotional efforts.

They were featured in commercials that ran this winter with the slogan, "We can't wait."

David Cope, who has worked for the Orioles and Ravens and now serves as director of business development for Bethesda-based Gilco Sports & Entertainment Marketing, said the Orioles have been smart to spread the attention over multiple players.

"If the organization takes one guy and shoves him down people's throats, I think there's a chance you can have some clubhouse jealousy," Cope said. "And if that one guy gets hurt, it could backfire on you."

The whole act played pretty well in spring training. The real test starts Sunday night at Camden Yards against the Boston Red Sox. The game, to be telecast on ESPN2, will be the Orioles' first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since 1999.

A good start could do wonders for the team at the turnstiles. Privately, club officials have expressed hope of drawing 3 million fans again this season if all the stars align. By Opening Day last year, the Orioles had sold 1.6 million tickets. As of Tuesday, they already had sold 1.8 million for this season.

Fans responding

Bob Haynie, who is in his fourth year hosting a call-in show on WNST (1570 AM), said the Tejada, Lopez and Palmeiro signings have raised the callers' interest in the Orioles substantially.

"Is it the interest level of the Ravens? Not yet," Haynie said. "But at least there are positive signs, as opposed to when Syd Thrift was out there going after guys like Jose Valentin. Their big signing was going to be Turk Wendell one year. When they signed Marty Cordova [after the 2001 season], the fans were like, forget it."

Haynie, a self-proclaimed Orioles homer, predicted 85 to 87 wins for the team this year. But he said the club could probably weather another losing season and still maintain interest as long as its young pitchers continue to develop.

"I think most people understand the process is going to take a couple years," Haynie said. "Even when they signed those free agents, [the callers] were like, 'Hey, this is great, but where's the pitching going to come from?' And in this division, it's going to be tough.

"But at least when fans go to the ballpark, they go with the hope that, realistically, they could win more games than they lose."

Tejada and Lopez are used to winning. Tejada went to the playoffs each of the past four years in Oakland. Lopez was part of a Braves club that has won 12 consecutive division titles.

Palmeiro has tried to tell them what it was like playing in Baltimore at a time when you couldn't get a seat at Camden Yards.

"It's different as a visiting player, but you still get that feeling, that magical feeling that the fans have for the Orioles," Palmeiro said. "But you have to experience it yourself. I can only say so much about it. If we get to that winning level again, they'll see what I'm talking about."

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