At O's FanFest, high hopes for a winning season

The Baltimore Sun

The weather didn't exactly call to mind the phrase "Play Ball!" but an April Fool's Day sun that kept trying to pierce the clouds above Camden Yards set the right tone yesterday for FanFest.

The thousands who flocked to the ballpark for the team's fan-friendly, two-hour workout - a first glimpse before the Orioles depart on a six-day road trip to begin the season - radiated the kind of muted enthusiasm you might expect from fans who know all too well that the team hasn't been a winner since 1997 but still have spring optimism.

"A division title might be tough," mused Mike Heisler, a lifelong Cal Ripken fan who drove from New Jersey with fiancee Christine Schiller and sat in the chilly left field stands, waiting in vain for a fly ball. "But if things go right, the team has improved enough, with the new pitchers, that a wild card isn't out of the question."

Behind the Orioles dugout, Earl Ingram of Woodbine, a retired trucker who remembers the first Opening Day at Memorial Stadium in 1954, made a "so-so" gesture when asked how the team would do. But it didn't keep him from bonding with grandson Nicholas Ingram, 8, of Frederick, who was at Camden Yards for the first time.

"We'll be good this year," said a wide-eyed Nicholas.

Meanwhile, future stars tried out batting cages and a pitching booth beneath the stands. In the Little Sluggers Zone, Bradley Bonham, 7, of Dundalk, attending with his father, Glenn, clubbed several Miguel Tejada-like line drives, sighed and turned his attention to a hot dog.

"We'll be better than last year," said Bradley, a Nick Markakis fan. "The pitching's improved. I love this team."

"He has a sweet swing, doesn't he?" asked Glenn Bonham.

As Jay Gibbons took the final swings of batting practice, the sun broke through. Rich and Harriet Hawse of Woodbine flanked sons Evan, 12, and Bradley, 10.

"First place, here we come, man. Bring it on!" said Rich Hawse, who likes the Orioles' young starting pitchers.

"Let's just hope they do better than last year," said his wife.

By workout's end, the lower sections were two-thirds full and fans jammed the aisles to get at Orioles players - Erik Bedard, Tejada, new reliever Chad Bradford and more - who sat for autographs.

Jessica Hawbaker, 22, came from Martinsburg, W.Va., to meet Kevin Millar.

"He has the prettiest eyes," she said after posing with her favorite first baseman. "The Orioles will be fine, but he's really nice. This is a beautiful day."

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