Orioles fans still clinging to hope

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles are selling hope. If the scene at Camden Yards yesterday is any indication, the fans are buying it.

But you might not want to use them as an indication - the annual FanFest is a haven for the most hard-core fans. So try using the fans at the 5-35 autograph show, running simultaneously in Towson, drawing from the same fan pool but from the ones who, presumably, bailed on the Orioles and their 10 years of losing and pledged their allegiance to pro football, past and present.

They're hanging in there, too. Barely.

"I go to a game, and I hope they win, but if they play a good, competitive game, that's good enough for me," insisted Kitty Witter of Baltimore, an Orioles partial season-ticket holder, as she stood in an incredibly long line at Towson Center waiting for Lenny Moore's autograph. "I want them to win, but they're on hard times. They'll win sooner or later; I'm not going to give up on them yet."

Two places behind her, though, Leo Dymowski of Baltimore said, "I haven't gone to an Orioles game in a dozen years, and I won't go back until [owner Peter] Angelos sells the team." Dymowski was juggling two posters, one of Jim O'Brien's field goal that won the January 1971 Super Bowl and one of Moore from the early 1960s.

In between Witter and Dymowski, Gino Meeker of Baltimore Highlands, wearing an Orioles cap, professed his loyalty. He said his father had gone to FanFest and picked up some of the free memorabilia for him. He enjoys going to games most, he said, when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are in town and their fans have turned it into an Orioles road game.

"They look at me," Meeker said, "and say, 'You're an Orioles fan? I thought all you guys were gone.' "

Some are still around. The estimated crowd of just under 10,000 was about the same as last year's event. Lunatic optimism has been a staple of FanFest in recent years. Oddly, so has a conflict with some Ravens-related function. Last year, the winter get-together was postponed from its original date, the Saturday of the infamous Ravens-Indianapolis Colts playoff game.

Now, it was one of the biggest gatherings of current and former Ravens and legendary Colts in one location. Among the crowd estimated at more than 6,100 at Towson, there was little complaining about the long lines - although not all were happy to see that some players who were advertised to be there, notably Tony Siragusa, did not show.

"That was a little disappointing. Other than that, it was pretty good," said Roberto Petrucci of Rosedale, wearing a Ray Lewis jersey and leaving the autograph show with his fiancee and daughter. He also was carrying a Colts mini-helmet with Bubba Smith's autograph.

"I still like the old Colts - and I liked the Police Academy movies," he said with a laugh.

For Rich Williamson of Rosedale and Matthew Myers of Westminister, both serious Ravens fans - Williamson also went back to the Colts days - the choice between team functions was a no-brainer. The reason for their Orioles disdain was familiar: the owner. "Why can't he take that team to Indianapolis and let some other team come here?" Myers cracked.

Still, that there was any crossover in the two fan bases at all indicated that there is at least a slight thaw in the cold shoulder the area has given the Orioles - despite the losing, the Ravens' general success and the increased presence of the Washington Nationals, whose new ballpark officially opens tonight.

James Frost, his wife and his two daughters made the trip from Calvert County to attend their first FanFest, and although they aren't going to completely pass on the Nationals, they'll stay faithful to the Orioles.

"Now that they have the right approach, building from the bottom up, we can wait on them for a couple of years," Frost said as they sat in the brisk, chilly ballpark. "And it will make the minor league games more interesting to watch.

"If they commit to what they've been saying ... " he continued. "But they've been doing it one way the last 10 years and it hasn't worked."

The Peter family - Dave, his wife, Jenn, and their 6-year-old, Mikey - also were at their first FanFest and were also coming from contested territory, Columbia. They left early, after about an hour, because of the long lines, but they were among the many who sounded a lot less pessimistic than similar die-hards in recent years.

"The Diamondbacks and the Rockies and all the other mid-level teams turn themselves around fast," Peter said, "so why can't the Orioles?"

Another successful sale of hope for the Orioles.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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