The Hagy way

The Baltimore Sun

Most Baltimoreans never met William "Wild Bill" Hagy, but many feel a personal loss in his passing this week. His Orioles cheer from Section 34 -- spelled out letter by letter by his ample form -- was as cherished a tradition as Memorial Stadium ever produced. In the so-called Orioles Magic era from the late 1970s to early 1980s, he was the ultimate fan, the unlikely leader of the pack.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Mr. Hagy was a blue-collar Baltimore guy through and through. He hailed from Sparrows Point. Drove a cab. Liked his beer. He was also easy to spot -- his beard and cowboy hat made him seem more grizzly than Grizzly Adams (another 1970s reference, kids). And most important, he lived and breathed Orioles baseball.

And so we mourn not only his death but the loss of the magical era during which he played such an important role. The Orioles were contenders then. They staged improbable comebacks with solid defense, great pitching and timely hitting. And the fans cheered freely and loudly. No electronic scoreboard had to tell the attentive crowd at Memorial Stadium when to roar. Wild Bill knew. So did we all.

As great a venue for pro baseball as Oriole Park at Camden Yards is (and it's certainly among the best in the majors), that special connection between the city and team has never been quite the same. Longtime fans bemoan the "chablis and brie" crowds of Oriole Park who show up late, leave early and are only mildly interested in the outcome (if they aren't there to cheer for the visitors, that is). The economics of the game have dictated much of this evolution; no team can meet its payroll on $5 seats and cheap beer.

Baseball has changed. Maybe Baltimore has changed too. If an excited fan stepped out on top of the hometown dugout tomorrow to incite the crowd, would he be welcomed as Wild Bill's successor or arrested by police? And just how would the well-dressed men and women in the $50 seats react? Probably with polite restraint.

The Orioles of the late 1960s and early '70s were dominating -- the best ever. But their games were often lightly attended. And as much fun as it was to see the team make the playoffs in the '90s, some of our fondest memories are of the Orioles of 1983, the last championship team, the best of the Wild Bill era. He, they and those magic, rollicking nights on 33rd Street will not be soon forgotten.

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