GOING TO BAT FOR O'S

The Baltimore Sun

Going, going, gone ... on 10 years of losing-season frustration, a city of disappointed souls wandering the baseball desert: tired, bloodied, sick of looking at the Yankees', Red Sox's, and Blue Jays' behinds in the standings, fearful the spineless Tampa Bay Devil Rays will rise up and haunt our dreams.

Seems the winning "Oriole Way" went thattaway. Outta here, like a hanging curve smacked over the right field wall. Yes, In Cal We Still Trust. But he's busy doing Comcast commercials these days.

Albert Belle, "Moose" Mussina, Sammy Sosa and too many others let us down. Hard. Maybe the real heroes aren't on the field. Maybe they're sitting in the bleachers or glued to a TV or poring over last night's box score in the paper. Real fans, whether dyed-in-the-wool or dreaming-in-Dundalk.

To those unbowed believers who have no doubts another American League pennant will someday fly over Oriole Park, we say ... well, we don't quite know what to say. But we wouldn't trade ya for a fistful of All-Stars.

Sisters Bernarde and Mary Rosalia Auth

There's no crying in baseball. Prayer, however, is permissible.

"We say our rosary for 'em every time they play," declares Sister Bernarde Auth, among the most faithful of the Orioles faithful.

She's a package deal. Sister Bernarde roots in tandem with her younger sibling, Sister Mary Rosalia.

Loyalty's in their blood. Both devoted their lives to the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and both reside at Villa Assumpta on North Charles Street, home to dozens of retired nuns.

Sometimes they listen to the O's on the radio, but usually ("Come hell or high water," is how Sister Bernarde puts it) the Auths are in front of the TV in the lounge.

Players aren't the only ones who must make adjustments with age. Their eyesight is failing, so the sisters need help reading the Orioles schedule.

They occasionally take a pass on watching West Coast games. "They start at 10 o'clock!" explains Sister Mary Rosalia.

The Auths got Orioles religion about 15 years ago. Blame it on Cal Ripken Jr. "He was so relaxed when he played," notes Sister Bernarde.

"And he was always fair," adds Sister Mary Rosalia.

She's the quieter one. Sister Bernarde talks to the TV, telling manager Sam Perlozzo to make a pitching change, exhorting Nick Markakis, who she thinks is the real deal, to hit a home run.

In dire situations, they recite their special Orioles prayer: "Infant Jesus lost and found, please bring this game around."

Like Cal, the Auths always play fair. They refuse to go negative and pray for the opposing team to lose, not even the wicked Yankees.

Says Sister Bernarde, "We don't wish any evil on them." Players: Sisters Bernarde and Mary Rosalia Auth

Ages: 94, 93

Hometown: Towson

Favorite Orioles Moments: Sister Bernarde once shook hands with Frank Robinson. For Sister Mary Rosalia, it was Cal Ripken Jr.'s victory lap after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak.

Favorite Oriole: Brian Roberts. "He's not a showoff. He works quietly," Sister Mary Rosalia says.

Least Favorite Oriole: Peter Angelos. "Why doesn't he loosen up a little bit?" Sister Bernarde says.

Season Prediction: They would "appreciate" a second- or third-place finish

Little-Known Facts: Sister Bernarde stopped driving at age 91, and her rooting ability remains unaffected by two artificial hips. In June, Sister Mary Rosalia will celebrate the 70th anniversary of taking her final vows as a nun.

Player: Scott Foster

Age: 18

Hometown: Fallston

Favorite Orioles Moment: Attending the first game played at Camden Yards.

Favorite Oriole: Cal Ripken Jr. Case closed.

Least Favorite Oriole: Tony Batista

Season Prediction: Third place

Little-Known Fact: When Foster played Pony League, his bases-loaded triple helped Overlea beat Harford Park, 12-7. "I just got a hold of one." (He missed an inside-the-park homer after slipping as he rounded second.)

Player: Robert Vallonga

Age: 76

Hometown: Hampden

Favorite Orioles Moment: On Sept. 6, 1995, Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131 consecutive game and broke Lou Gehrig's record. "I would have loved to have been there."

Favorite Oriole: Brooks Robinson. Steady, spectacular.

Least Favorite Oriole: Mike "Judas" Mussina

Season Prediction: Fourth place - again

Little-Known Fact: Years ago, he organized neighborhood games in Hampden. As he slowly drove everyone to the games, overflow kids rode in the trunk of his Ford LTD.

Player: Donald Franklin

Age: 52

Hometown: Baltimore

Favorite Orioles Moment: 1966 World Series

Favorite Oriole: Frank Robinson. Power and grace personified.

Least Favorite Oriole: Glenn Davis. Major flop.

Season Prediction: Fourth place

Little-Known Fact: "To this day, I can still field a pretty good ball."

Player: Manuel Paragios

Age: 39

Hometown: Highlandtown

Career Highlight: Was a catcher in high school; fondly recalls a particular runner he "gunned" down stealing

Favorite Orioles Moment: "Would have to be the World Series of '83." The O's beat the Phillies in five games.

Favorite Oriole: Currently, Miguel Tejada; all-time, Brooks Robinson, "a living legend"

Least Favorite Oriole: Former relievers Steve Kline ("hot head") and Norm Charlton ("blew too many games")

Season Prediction: With "some luck," the O's can make a run for the wildcard playoff slot.

Little-Known Fact: He introduced chicken gyros to the Sip & Bite menu seven years ago; thet are now its "big seller."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

Scott Foster

For more than half his life, the Orioles have had losing seasons. Still, Scott Foster - all of 18 - faces each new season with one overpowering emotion: hope. He was born with it. Two weeks shy of his first birthday in June 1989, his father took him to see the Orioles play Boston. "I don't remember too much of that game," says Foster, a freshman at York College. He has a clearer memory of when he was almost 4 and was at Opening Day at brand-spanking-new Camden Yards. A long (very long) orange ribbon stretched across the field. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke helped make the cut. Foster remembers Oriole pitcher Rick Sutcliffe blanking the Indians 2-0.

Fast forward to 1997. Scott and his father, Steve Foster, were at Camden Yards watching the Yankees pitch to Harold Baines. Scott looked at his father and issued these immortal words: Baines is going to hit a grand slam over center field. The Oriole complied.

"I called it," Foster says, "and I never let my father forget it."

Foster, who grew up outside Rosedale before moving to Fallston, played baseball in recreational leagues and subscribed to the "Ripken Way." A lifelong Cal Ripken Jr. fan, Foster tried to play ball to Ripken specifications - emphasis on fundamentals, running out every ground ball, never taking the game or a game for granted. Foster, a veteran of the Orioles' FanFest, followed a recipe for hope.

"Any team can beat any other team on any field on any given day," he says.

Hopeful words to live by - especially after a dismal start to this season.

Robert Vallonga

Not a home opener too soon.

"Thank God the baseball season is back," says Robert Vallonga, a 76-year-old Orioles fan who lives alone in Hampden. "Loneliness is tough."

Vallonga's wife of 54 years, Hilda, passed away three years ago. More than ever, baseball keeps him company. Once a regular at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards, Vallonga doesn't get out to the games much anymore. A cane helps him with balance, but "if I had my way, I'd be at every game." He's left with watching the O's on the tube. He watches reruns of games, too.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Vallonga organized neighborhood baseball games at Wyman Park, where he was pitcher, equipment manager, coach and unofficial league commissioner. He had enough kids to form several teams and even created score cards for each game. He was their pitcher. No surprise he closely followed the careers of pitchers Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar. Vallonga still watches games in hopes of seeing a no-hitter.

Oh, he gets discouraged (again, why did team owner Peter Angelos let manager Davey Johnson go?) and predicts another fourth-place finish. But the Orioles are his team - whether it's a winning or losing season.

There's something more.

"To tell you the honest truth, I still feel like I can play," says the retired sandlot pitcher. He dreams of having a pitcher lob a few over, as he stands on the natural grass of Camden Yards. Young again, Vallonga wants to feel his bat on a ball.

"That's my one wish before I die."

Donald Franklin

Was it 1966 when Frank Robinson took Luis Tiant over the wall at Memorial Stadium? It was just a regular-season game, but a memorable shot. Donald Franklin was there. But the year is a minor detail for the 52-year-old Franklin, a former Junior Oriole Fan Club member who has since settled into middle-aged fandom.

"I just love my baseball team," he says.

Things can be that simple sometimes.

Franklin is a letter carrier by day, which is good and bad timing. Sometimes, he can get off work in time to watch his 16-year-old son, Damon, pitch for Woodlawn High School. If not, Franklin still has plenty of time to make a night game at Camden Yards. Any seat will do.

His hero was Frank Robinson, but Franklin doesn't live in the Orioles past. He's now a Daniel Cabrera fan. In a break from team tradition, the O's could finish in third because of Cabrera and improved relief pitching, Franklin predicts. The team still needs power. "I'd like to have a real big thumper in that five spot," he says.

Thumper or no thumper, you need patience to follow baseball - and you need additional patience to follow Orioles baseball.

"Even through the losing years, I'm still right here," he says. "I have high hopes each and every year."

He lives in fear, though. Franklin, a junior and senior O's fan, fears fans will become so discouraged that Angelos might sell or move the team.

Let's worry instead about the Yankees, Boston and Toronto, OK?

Manuel Paragios

No Oriole ever dines unnoticed at Sip & Bite in Canton. Not on nights Manuel Paragios works the grill.

He knows the team by face, as well as name. Bedard. Roberts. Markakis. All of 'em. Also knows relief pitchers have the biggest appetites.

"Todd Williams is probably the best," he says. "He eats whatever you put in front of him."

Personally, Paragios can't stomach many more losing seasons. Yet his mood might be characterized as "sunny-side-up." Why? "I like the young pitchers, man."

He came here from Greece in 1969. Baseball became his entree to America. He spent "every penny" he had on bubblegum cards. He played Little League and high school ball: a switch-hitting catcher with a gravy-smooth swing. At 39, he still keeps his glove in the trunk of his car and still frequents the batting cage - to catch the fast-pitch machine.

"The kids now don't even understand what 'the Oriole Way' is," he says, wistfully. "The Orioles used to be good defense and pitching."

Paragios would put Adam Loewen higher in the rotation, right after No. 1 starter Erik Bedard: back-to-back lefties. He'd sign a veteran pitcher to mentor that young staff and trade for a big bat, maybe Ken Griffey Jr.

His other fantasy move is off-field. The Paragios family hails from the same Greek island (Karpathos) as owner Peter Angelos, but Orioles blood is thicker than heritage.

The recipe for long-term success? "He oughta sell the team."

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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