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KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

With its mostly green pitching staff, unproven starters at several key positions and a cleanup hitter who hasn't slugged even 20 home runs in each of the past four years, the 2008 Orioles - who kick off their season at Camden Yards at 3:05 p.m. today - might need some serious sleight-of-hand to become true contenders in the always-competitive American League East this year.

Few expect manager Dave Trembley to yank a rabbit that size out of his orange-and-black cap - all the more reason, perhaps, for long-suffering Baltimore fans to cling to the one shell game they've learned never lets them down.

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"Even if you're in the midst of a rough patch," says Mike Stashik, director of stadium productions at Camden Yards, "the Crab Shuffle is fun to play. And if the team's doing well, it makes things even better.

"The Crab Shuffle," he says, stretching out his pronunciation as if savoring the name of a fine wine. "It's amazing how popular that game has become."

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For those who haven't visited Camden Yards in the past seven years - or who were hitting the concession stands in the middle of the fifth when they did - a bit of exposition is in order. At each of the 567 Oriole home games since April Fool's Day 2001, Stashik's crew has screened a loopy animated contest on the stadium's main video board - the Crab Shuffle, or crab game.

As the feature begins, three cartoon crabs (numbered 1, 2 and 3) appear on the huge screen above centerfield. The cheerful crustaceans levitate as an animated baseball is slipped beneath one. For nearly a minute, frenetic flute-and-organ music fills the ballpark as they tumble, twirl and interweave, only to achieve a pregnant repose.

Fans are encouraged to choose - and shout the number of - the crab they think has the ball.

The divertissement draws brow-furrowing attention and ardent roars from kids and grown-ups alike.

"It's not really material to me in terms of watching the game," says Anthony Amobi of Silver Spring, a longtime O's rooter. "But it gets the casual fan into things, the one who's into everything but the game itself.

"And, actually, I do like to track where the ball is traveling. As long as you pay attention and don't take your eyes off [the ball], it's easy enough to win."

Orioles fans frustrated by 10 straight losing seasons might be tempted to guess the team dreamed up the contest to divert attention from the often-rocky product on the field. But the idea took root in the late 1990s, when the O's and postseason play were still on familiar terms.

Back then, a scoreboard animation company succeeded in selling a video version of three-card monte to a couple of major-league teams. The game featured three baseball caps concealing a ball, swirling around and coming to rest.

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The game was adaptable to any big-league franchise. All a given team had to do was use its own caps.

"It was a smash hit right away," says Sarah Logan, Stashik's counterpart with the Boston Red Sox, one of the few teams in baseball that chooses not to use any version of the game. "People love it. It gives you something entertaining to do during the break" between innings.

Sometime in 2001, Stashik and his staff - it includes three full-time employees and 30 who only work during games - decided to give the feature a Baltimore flavor. "We thought, 'Hey, everyone does a hat game,'" he says. " 'Why don't we localize it? Why don't we use crabs?'"

The team hired Keyframe Creative Agency, a South Dakota-based animation company that has created video-board content for the Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Steelers and many other sports franchises - to hatch the Crab Shuffle in 2001. "We wanted a fun, cartoon-y effect," says Stashik, whose department oversees all ballpark entertainment, from instant replays to music and in-game graphics. "It just clicked. It got some of the loudest roars from the crowd. It still does."

The sociable shellfish will be bigger than ever this year. They'll be shown in 74-foot-by-27-foot DiamondVision splendor on the upper of two new centerfield video boards, part of a $5.2 million makeover in the stadium's graphics displays.

To talk to Stashik is to learn that few elements of nonbaseball entertainment are left to chance. Based in a control room next to the press box, communicating on headsets, he and his staff match their features - the low-key "Orioles in the Community," the light-hearted "Kiss Cam," "hero shots" of O's players, "pump-up videos" - to a game's events as they unfold.

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The Crab Shuffle is such a staple it's nearly always screened in the middle of the fifth inning - and always alongside the logo of Old Bay, the spot's longtime sponsor. During games delayed by rain, fans sometimes get to see it twice (with two different outcomes, of course).

Because big-league baseball limits the breaks between innings to two minutes, video features rarely exceed one minute, 40 seconds. The Crab Shuffle lasts 60 seconds.

But the game has evolved over the years. Staff changed the background music - the current tune is more "beachlike" than the original - and Keyframe developed three versions at the O's request. In the original, fans see only the crabs and the ball. In a second, added in 2003, a purple octopus enters to complicate matters. In a third, a speedboat creates a ruckus before the crabs resurface and come to rest.

Fans might see any of the three versions on a given night. Within each version, any of the three crabs can win. (That's nine possible outcomes.)

Stashik's producers choose the winner before each game, cueing the appropriate Beta tape. The same crab has been known to win two or even three times in a row on occasion, but staffers keep careful logs of the results and eschew patterns as much as possible.

Does the effort foil bettors? Fans have asked Stashik to rig another feature, he says - the "hot dog contest" in which animated condiments race around the bases. (He resisted.) And the crab game? "I mostly stay in the booth, so I can't tell you what happens in the stands," he says. "But we preserve our integrity."

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There's no shortage of theories as to what makes the Crab Shuffle a hit.

Amobi, who runs a blog called Oriole Post, says even a well-played baseball game can be a bit slow for the casual fan's tastes, and the game livens things up. "It's not like football, where you've got that primal, animalistic lust," he says. "Baseball is more friendly. It's good, clean entertainment."

To Orioles fan Scott Christ, it's about local pride. The crab game "is every bit as effective in adding hometown flavor as anything on a scoreboard can be," he says.

Stashik notes the interactive nature of the game - and the intergenerational nature of baseball.

"A father might like the challenge," he says. "A son might just enjoy the animation part. It's appealing whether you're 5 or 50 years old."

Out-of-towners take part, too - even Bostonians, who are subjected to a dumbed-down version several times a year. "For them, we make it the middle crab," Stashik says. "It doesn't move. We put an arrow over it: 'It's this one.' Even a Red Sox fan can win."

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In seven years, few have questioned the merit of the shell game within the game.

O's longtime trainer "Richie Bancells is the only one who really gives me a hard time," Stashik says. "Know what he doesn't like? The crabs don't start moving until after they're sprinkled with Old Bay. In real life, he says by the time that happens, a crab isn't moving at all."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com


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