Orioles' FanFest still draws a faithful out-of-town flock

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington suburbanites Cheryl and David Nichols will soon have a new major league baseball team much closer to home.

But the Nicholses say their hearts - and wallets - remain with the Orioles. Yesterday they proved as much at the Baltimore Convention Center, where thousands of orange-and-black-clad faithful ate hot dogs, bought souvenirs, greeted players and even grilled Orioles executives on important matters like who will start at first base.

It was all part of Orioles FanFest 2005, an annual bash that had added significance as the team tries to keep fans like the Nicholses from defecting to the Washington Nationals, who will begin play this year.

"I might be the only guy in the area to have an Orioles hat and a Nationals hat," said David Nichols, 37, of Alexandria, Va. " ... But it doesn't change my allegiance."

Slightly more than 9,000 people attended this year's event, according to the Orioles. In previous years FanFest has drawn upward of 15,000.

After paying $10 to get in, David Nichols bought an $89 orange button-up jersey and a $3 portrait of the 1983 national champion Orioles.

He'll soon buy an Orioles ticket plan.

Despite his love for the Orioles, "I've always wanted a team back in Washington," said David Nichols, who wrote a thesis on the subject at Towson State University in 1989. "Getting up here for a 7 o'clock game means I have to leave [Washington] at 3 or 4 in the afternoon."

So he and his wife have resolved to attend all the Orioles Sunday home games. During the week, they'll take in the occasional Nationals game at RFK Stadium, a 10-minute subway ride from their offices in downtown Washington.

Yesterday they weren't the only fans from out of town.

Jeff Noll and his 13-year-old son, Ben, have never lived in the Baltimore area. But Jeff Noll has been an Orioles fan ever since the team's heyday in the 1970s, when legends like Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan held sway.

"I was influenced by their winning ways," said Noll, 43.

He and his son boarded a train Friday morning in upstate New York to begin a 4 1/2 -hour trek to Baltimore for a weekend getaway centered around FanFest.

They came so they could be around fellow Orioles fans, Noll said, because die-hard fans are hard to come by in small-town Montgomery, N.Y.

"There's great stories [told] when you're standing in line" to meet Orioles players such as Brian Roberts and Larry Bigbie, as Noll was.

Noll told several new friends about being there for the final game at Memorial Stadium, and how he has raised his son, Ben, to be an Orioles fan.

Ben, who was in a separate line to meet catcher Javy Lopez, has two wooden Memorial Stadium chairs in his room, his father said. Ben will miss two school days because of the trip.

Despite the team's mediocre record in recent years, "I've always been an O's fan and I'll stay an O's fan," Noll said.

Other fans, such as Corry Royer, 57, of Baltimore, bemoaned the recent plight of pitcher Sidney Ponson, who spent 11 days in jail for allegedly striking a judge during a Christmas Day beach fight in his native Aruba.

"He's getting married, so that's about the only thing that can settle him down because nothing else has," Royer said.

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