TRUE BELIEVERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What was once monochrome now comes in Kodachrome.

But first, some background: Mayor Martin O'Malley introduced his "Believe" campaign in spring 2002 to combat the scourges of drugs and crime in the city. At the time, no one thought to believe in the Orioles. The team was en route to a dismal 67-95 season and seemed beyond hope.

But drugs and crime -- now that's something we can overcome!

The campaign's stark black-and-white signs blanketed the city, turning up on buildings and car bumpers, on buttons, T-shirts and billboards. Permutations emerged, such as the Hampden-ized "Blieve, Hon" and "Behave."

Then, a few weeks ago we noticed another variation. There, on the Jumbotron at Camden Yards, was a guy holding up a black "Believe" sign, but the white lettering was now Orioles orange. It was classy, elegant -- and just a little subversive.

Here, finally, was a slogan worthy of the season. The Orioles spent two months leading the American League East, a perch they relinquished to the Boston Red Sox last week in the midst of a six-game losing streak. After last night's rainout, the Birds are just two games back and poised to make a run for the playoffs in the second half of the season.

It's the team's most promising start in eight years. Fans are jamming the ballpark again -- at least when the Yankees are in town as they were this week. Orioles fever is spreading. And yet, the team's promotion office has coughed up just two lame slogans:

O the Power!

O the Magic!

Oh, the stupidity. Fortunately, a few clever fans have taken it upon themselves to come up with something better.

At the game Monday night, James Baker, 22, was standing in the flag court beyond the right field wall, waving his homemade "Believe" sign as the Orioles took the field.

Baker's sign is a 20-by-30-inch piece of black foam board. For the letters, he carefully cut out orange printer paper to mimic the font of the city's official "Believe" signs. Then he glued them to the foam board. He's taken the sign to 12 games this year.

"I believe in the city. I believe in the team. It's just natural," said Baker, a Bel Air resident and history major at Towson University. He got the idea after seeing the standard black-and-white "Believe" sign at a Ravens game. "I thought I should bring one to an Orioles game, because if anyone needs us to believe in them, it's the Orioles."

Baker's not the only one to realize the mayor's slogan can be applied to this surprising Orioles team. Also at Monday's game, 10-year-old Katherine Phillips was standing on a seat behind the visitors' dugout, holding aloft a black sign with a big orange O, a drawing of an eye and the word "Believe."

Her father, David Phillips of Owings Mills, said he made the sign about two weeks ago, one in a series of signs that Katherine and her brother, 6-year-old Walker, have taken to games this year.

(One such sign converted all the players' names to O-words. Thus, Javy Lopez became J. Lo and Sammy Sosa became So-so -- not a bad description of his performance this year.)

But the "Believe" sign has caught on. "If good things are going to happen, you have to believe before it happens," David Phillips said. "I believe in Baltimore. I believe in the Orioles. We need to pump up the volume around here."

Phillips and Baker have made the signs without the official sanction of the city, but Baltimore officials offered a tacit endorsement when asked about the signs. The city produces "Believe" signs in 14 languages and has put the slogan on everything from trash cans to wristbands. An orange sign doesn't seem too far afield.

"That's super," said Izzy Patoka, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, home of the "Believe" campaign. "I must admit it sounds intriguing, especially given the success of the Orioles this year. The whole 'Believe' campaign was to step up civic pride and pride in the city of Baltimore, and the Orioles have always given the city pride."

Even more so this year. Patoka notes that his 3-year-old son can't go to sleep without the Orioles game on the radio. Patoka has even taped Orioles broadcasts to play for his son on nights the team doesn't play.

O'Malley -- an optimist if there ever was one -- said the idea behind "Believe" has always been woven into the fabric of the city, from the defense of the city against the British in 1814 to the rebuilding after the great fire of 1904.

"Part of the experience, the allure, the attraction of community in a major league city is cheering on your major league team," O'Malley said. "Cities aren't just where the problems are. They're where the potential is, and some of that is on the playing field.

"So for an icon of civic pride like the Orioles to encourage fans and the team to believe in themselves is a great thing."

The Orioles think so, too. The team has not produced any of the signs itself, but a club spokesman said it's encouraging to see fans taking such an active interest in the team.

"This really jells with the city's slogan, and it certainly goes hand-in-hand with what we want fans to do with regard to our chances of winning the pennant this year," said Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka. He said the team would be open to discussions with the city about mass-producing the signs if they catch on.

The slogan seems a direct descendant of the 1989 season motto -- "Why not?" -- which came as the team was making a surprise playoff run, after the devastating 1988 season that had begun with a 21-game losing streak. This year's team is coming off seven straight losing seasons. Both "Why not?" and "Believe" are about defying expectations, and both grew out of the team's performance on the field.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the team had used the slogan "Orioles Magic," which particularly fit the 1979 team that won the pennant with some dramatic, late-inning wins.

But more recent slogans have not been as memorable. A few years ago, the team went with "These Kids Come to Play," a reference to the youth of the team during its "rebuilding" years. But the slogan instead drew derision.

On ESPN.com, for example, columnist Jim Caple deciphered the real meaning of the slogan: "Unfortunately, the bulk of the roster is older than the B&O; Warehouse, and those veterans come to putter around the hardware store, talk about the weather and complain about today's loud popular music. They also lose their keys a lot."

The current crop of Orioles is a bit more promising.

And several of them said they have noticed fans holding the "Believe" signs during games. It's the right sentiment for the season, they said.

"That's a good one," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "You have to believe before you can do it. If you don't believe, you won't accomplish anything."

Outfielder Larry Bigbie said "Believe" was the best slogan he's heard this year. "O, the power is OK, but it's not something that will carry you to the playoffs. Believe means you will find a way."

Besides waving "Believe" signs, people are also wearing the slogan on their chest. Baltimore resident Chris Gromek, 33, was wearing a black T-shirt with a white "Believe" on the front at Monday's game.

"I'm trying to inspire the crowd, to make a statement," said Gromek, a teacher at Chase Elementary School in Baltimore County. "There's been nothing to cheer for for seven or eight years. But this year is exciting."

And even though the team has hit some rough patches, those with faith say they're not shaken.

"I'm not worried. I can't be worried. It goes against the nature of the sign," said Baker, outfitted in his orange Orioles jersey and orange cap. He hopes his sign catches on. "When we get close to the end of the season, I'd love to see a sea of these things."

Baker is already on his second sign this season. "They break down after a while. They get rained on," he said. But he doesn't mind the small investment he makes for the team. Nor is Baker -- who moonlights as a waiter at the M&S; Grill downtown -- asking for any compensation, at least not of the monetary kind.

"All I ask for being the quasi-creator of this -- I don't want to get paid -- I just want to be here for the playoffs," he said.

He promises to bring the sign.

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