LIKE MANY PEOPLE who root for the Orioles, Tony Pente would love to find Carlos Delgado or a new starting pitcher among his holiday gifts.
But Pente has more basic desires this year, such as a safe return to his wife and four children in 2005, and good things for the people of Afghanistan, where he is in a yearlong Army deployment.
Pente, 34, is an intelligence specialist with deep Baltimore-area roots. He grew up in Anne Arundel County and graduated from Northeast High School. His grandfather is the unofficial mayor of Little Italy whose bedroom serves as the projection room for the open-air summer movie festival.
A baseball fanatic, Pente founded and owns OriolesHangout.com, a popular Web site among fans of the team. Started as a lark in 1996, it now includes daily game reports, news and analysis from the Orioles' minor league system and a sizable bulletin board community.
"It's amazing how far we've come," Pente wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan after I contacted him recently. "And we have big plans for the future."
But first things first. He still has three months to go in Afghanistan, where his work has included supporting the recent presidential election.
"Things are getting pretty monotonous now," he wrote, "but it's extremely satisfying to see that we've helped change a country from a lawless safe haven for terrorists into a democratic country headed in the right direction."
When his time is up, he will return to Hawaii, where his family currently resides. Married to his high school sweetheart, he hopes to move everyone back to the Baltimore-Washington area in 2006 and retire from the Army in 2008.
"I figure I can serve my country for the first 20 years of my adult life and then spend the next 20 years involved with baseball," he wrote.
He was a player himself, a high school outfielder who also played on military teams. He said he made the cut from 90 outfielders down to six at an Orioles tryout camp at Memorial Stadium in 1990 and was asked to come back.
But his chance evaporated when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Army called. He spent the next year producing intelligence products for Desert Storm.
After taking the basic course for military intelligence warrant officers in 1996, he was assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and began tinkering on the Internet. His account came with 500k of Web space, and he decided to start a page devoted to the Orioles, as much to amuse himself as anything.
They had brought in Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson, and "I couldn't have been more excited about the team I've always loved," he wrote.
He spent the next few years surviving start-up kinks, adding content, developing a following, moving back to the D.C. area, covering Oriole minor leaguers and bringing in a Webmaster. A network takeover put some money in his pocket.
His baseball acumen was indisputable; one National League assistant general manager invited him to become a scout after a conversation in the Camden Yards press box. But he had another life, a job in intelligence.
"One time I flew across an ocean, briefed a foreign government, got back on a plane, and the following day, I was at Bowie watching a prospect pitch. That was quite surreal," he wrote.
By 2003, the site had become a reliable source for Orioles minor league news and opinion, and Pente was working harder than ever. But he knew an overseas deployment was coming in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Army dispatched him to Hawaii for a three-year assignment in June 2003 and on to Afghanistan in March 2004.
OriolesHangout.com is still going strong with managing editor John Domen and Webmaster Richard Legendre in charge. (Legendre is the site's "unsung hero," Pente wrote.) Pente has broadened its scope by posting moving diary entries from Afghanistan.
"I figured it would be neat for my family and friends to see what it was like for me over here," he wrote in his e-mail to me. "Although my work is still mainly classified, I'm able to talk about everyday life here as well as the few times I've been out on some missions.
"The hardest entry to write was the one that chronicled my youngest son Matt's journal once I left [Hawaii]. It broke my heart to see how much he missed me and how it had affected him."
Although Pente doesn't have much time to think about baseball now, he monitors the site and the bulletin board and keeps up with the Orioles' moves, or lack thereof.
"Once I get back to Hawaii [in April], I will be more active in the Hangout again," he wrote.
Meanwhile, he continues to post diary entries from Afghanistan, which have prompted such a response that he recently posted a bulletin board thank-you note:
"I'm probably preaching to the choir with most of you who have read these diaries, but I hope the one thing you take from them is the fact that I'm just a regular guy. That's why I write them from my perspective. I try to give you the thoughts that crossed my mind as I go through this deployment so you can see that I'm probably a lot like you."
Just an Orioles fan. But a special one, indeed.