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On festive day, not all Orioles fans in the mood for party

The Baltimore Sun

Orange hats by the thousands. Concussive fireworks reverberating above Camden Yards. Roars of support from a sellout crowd as Brian Roberts ran down the long, orange carpet to take the field and Cal Ripken Jr. threw out the first pitch.

Yesterday's Orioles home opener featured all the markers of a city embracing its baseball team after a long winter away.

"It's Opening Day, and you can't get better than that here in Baltimore," manager Sam Perlozzo said before the game.

The Orioles even warmed the hearts of their chilly supporters with a tidy 6-2 victory over the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers.

But then there were fans such as Charlie Hoppes of Frederick.

Hoppes had just become a serious baseball fan the last time the Orioles posted a winning record, in 1997. The college student arrived for the home opener yesterday in a hand-drawn Brooks Robinson jersey. He calls Robinson his favorite player, though he's too young to have seen the Hall of Famer's diving stops around third base.

Hoppes also arrived carrying a sign that read "Free the Birds" on one side and "For Pete's Sake" on the other. That identified him as one of many at yesterday's game who are tired of watching the Orioles lose under owner Peter Angelos.

As Hoppes yearned for the past and lamented the present, he paused for a second. "It's really sad," he said. "I'm only 20, and here I am talking like an old man."

The specter of nine straight losing seasons hangs over everything the Orioles do. When they lost three straight in Minnesota to start the season, the talk around town quickly changed from "They might be better" to "Oh, no, they're awful again."

ESPN.com last week ranked Orioles rooters as the least satisfied fan base in the major leagues.

Perlozzo and the players know all isn't well. They played before dozens of half-full houses last year, as fans came to Camden Yards at record-low rates. And few experts are picking the Orioles to push past the fourth-place finishes that have become the norm in recent years.

"We have something to prove to them," Perlozzo said of his team's fans. "We'd like to get them back."

Players take a practical view of the situation. "I've played on teams where they had to give away tickets to get anybody to come," said new reliever Jamie Walker, who previously played for the Kansas City Royals and Tigers. "Winning cures everything."

Yesterday's opponents from Detroit could tell the Orioles about that. The Tigers lost 119 games four years ago and seemed about as hopeless as a franchise can be. Last year, they won the American League pennant and drew almost twice as many fans as they did during 2003.

Some Orioles fans showed up yesterday with fantasies of such a turnaround dancing beneath their orange and black caps.

Bob Kominski of Greenbelt donned an orange and black mask modeled after those worn by professional wrestling stars in Mexico. He said he breaks it out for Opening Day but won't wear it again this year unless his team makes the playoffs.

"It's up to the Orioles if they want to bring this outfit again this season," he said, pointing from the orange B on his forehead to his bright orange pants.

Kominski is a guarded optimist about this year's team. He acknowledged growing despondent when the Orioles lost the first three of the season. "But it's a long match," he said, playing out his wrestling persona for all it was worth.

He sounded downright pessimistic compared with Jack Dudley, who has an Orioles bird tattooed on the left side of his chest, right over his heart. Dudley drove from his home in West Virginia to watch the team he grew up supporting as a resident of South Baltimore.

"Today's the game of the year for me," he said. "It doesn't matter if they win or lose. It doesn't matter. I'll always be a die-hard Orioles fan, the die-hardest."

Dudley said he helped paint Camden Yards during its construction, and one of the last days he spent with his dying father came at an Orioles game. He pulled his pants away from his waist to reveal Orioles boxer shorts yesterday. His unconditional love is the sort the club depends on.

But even those who dream of sedition against Angelos said they haven't turned on the franchise.

"This is done out of love," Hoppes said, staring at his Free the Birds sign. "People don't do this because they hate the Orioles. This used to be such a great baseball town. People just want to get back to that, and it's frustrating because the money and the potential seem to be there."

The attendance at tonight's game against Detroit might be one measure of Baltimore's mood about its team.

After an Opening Day sellout of 46,986 last season, only 16,083 souls braved the April chill for Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That foreshadowed the worst season attendance since the Orioles moved to Camden Yards 15 years ago.

Despite such bleak recent history, Perlozzo refused to put too much weight on his team's early performance.

"Certainly, if we don't do it early today, we have a lot of games to go," Perlozzo said. "I think the different part is that guys are coming in expecting to play better baseball.

"It's Opening Day," he added. "I don't think anything can put a damper on that."


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