Fans, let down too often, say they've heard it all before

The Baltimore Sun

Maybe it was the 90-degree heat, or the fact the team had a day off before starting a West Coast road trip. But yesterday, a few hours after the Orioles ended weeks of speculation and sacked their embattled manager, it seemed fitting that the only person to be found at the Camden Yards ticket window was wearing a Red Sox cap - and a puzzled expression.

Inside the warehouse, executive vice president Mike Flanagan was holding a news conference to announce the firing of Sam Perlozzo. In the midday heat just yards away, near an otherwise deserted Hall of Fame Plaza, Jim Squires of Boston surveyed the retired numbers of Oriole greats like Frank and Brooks Robinson, and shook his head.

"This should be a tremendous baseball town," said Squires, 44. "It should be hard just to get a ticket in Baltimore. What in the world happened?"

He was in town for only a couple of days, so it's doubtful he'd have the time necessary to hear the average Oriole fan fully answer that question. High-priced signings that didn't pan out. The loss of a beloved broadcaster (Jon Miller), a popular manager (Davey Johnson), a proven general manager (Pat Gillick). Fans haven't simply endured nine - probably soon to be 10 - years of sub-.500 baseball, but a franchise that "couldn't have made a worse series of decisions, decade after decade," in the words of Mike Papa, a lifelong fan who canceled his family's season ticket plan two years ago.

As the fortunes of the Orange and Black dwindled over the years, fans kept a reluctant truce with the team, even as the winning template, the so-called "Oriole Way," seemed to unravel strand by strand. But yesterday, as the O's were announcing the firing of yet another manager, fans sounded distinctly like lovers who had been betrayed too many times.

"It's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," sniffed Charles Baily, a local attorney who canceled his season-ticket package three years back. "It's amazing to see this franchise, with its storied history, falling to such a state. It just doesn't seem like they care."

That was a common refrain: It's not even the losing they hate. What offends them is a franchise - and players - who appear to lack interest. "There's no heart," said Pamela White, a circuit court judge and longtime season-ticket holder. The players "seem to have no esprit de corps. It's not even the All-Star break, and they're just going through the motions. And doing that badly. The feeling in the ballpark is awful."

White, who moved downtown in 1988 to be near Camden Yards, once made it to 36 games a year or more no matter the team's won-lost record. But her Orioles' decline has been so "depressing," she says, she has had to talk herself into renewing annually.

This year, the team's apparent lassitude has been the final straw. She won't renew again.

"I can't take it anymore," she said. If White was reluctant to name names, Mike Papa had no such problem. The Perry Hall insurance adjuster, once a season-ticker holder, has 9-year-old twin sons who love the game, but he doesn't want them exposed to the laziness of some current Orioles.

Shortstop Miguel "Tejada doesn't keep track of how many outs there are. He doesn't think ahead of the play, and he's not running out ground balls. I'm trying to teach my kids about baseball, about the fundamentals, and taking them to the games would be exposing them to the wrong way to play."

For many, this year's mishaps have proved such a contrast to the winning ways of Orioles teams past, that they seemed more reluctant than ever to harbor hope.

To Betty Loomis, 77, of Ellicott City, firing Perlozzo was a stopgap measure. The current players strike her as the sort who won't listen to coaches, whoever they happen to be. "Who learns on this team? Too many regulars haven't been up to par, like [outfielder Jay] Gibbons. Since he signed his contract, [third baseman Melvin] Mora seems to be uninterested. I'm starting to get to the point where I put 'em on TV and watch, and then I end up sorry I did."

To White and Papa, it's not even a matter of the won-lost record. Both were fans of the 1988 Orioles, who started the season by losing a record 21 straight games. Both loved that team.

"They tried hard," Papa says. "They connected with the community. You liked those guys. The O's have been putting teams on the field that are hard to support.

"Maybe cleaning house will rekindle something. I'm dying for something positive, and I'm not closing any doors, especially with two 9-year-olds. But the team will have to show it cares."

White still plans to be there June 29 when the O's play the Los Angeles Angels, a new skipper in the dugout.

She's not looking for miracles - just some semblance of what used to be.

"I'll go with interest," she says. "I'll be very curious to see how the place feels. Will it be a glass half full, or half-empty the way it has been? Man, I hope there's a different atmosphere."

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