A magic trick

The Baltimore Sun

Do you still believe in magic? I guess that's the most apt question right now.

If we can stop time and freeze the scene, we would see a man wearing a fake beard who has been hoisted high above his buddies. They also have fake beards. The one atop the crowd has yanked off his straw hat and waves it in the air, trying to whip up a gust of excitement that might travel throughout the ballpark.

Do you still believe in magic? It's a fading concept around Orioles baseball. Sure, the team has put together a surprisingly good opening act, but another cherished link to winning baseball - the campy song "Orioles Magic" - is gone. The team has stopped playing it at the start of each game.

I found some guys who certainly do believe, and they weren't wearing those beards to hide their identities. (Hey, it's not always easy being an Orioles fan.) They were paying tribute to an iconic figure: Wild Bill Hagy, he of the straw hat, the scruffy beard and the pony keg gut. From his seat in Section 34, he was the wand that stirred Orioles Magic each night on 33rd Street.

"He was part of our childhood," said Charley Case, 39, who grew up a 15-minute walk from Memorial Stadium and now runs an inn in Aspen, Colo. Case and his buddies remember watching Wild Bill from afar during their grade-school years. Later they would sneak their way into Section 34, a rite of passage in Baltimore. In college, they dressed as Wild Bill at Halloween parties. And when Baltimore's most famous fan died last August, the group of childhood chums passed around sad e-mails and shared old stories.

At some point in the months that followed, Case decided that before his April wedding date, he would spend one last night in Baltimore with his boyhood buddies. They'd retell ancient tales. They'd put back a few drinks. They'd attend an Orioles game.

But what about Wild Bill? The game's just not the same without him.

One thing led to another and ...

"The next thing I know," Case said, "I was online buying fake beards."

They met a couple of hours before the first pitch. They tried on their beards, downed some Natty Bohs and warmed up with a few Wild Bill chants. David Clapp placed the odds at 10-1 that one of them might dance atop the dugout later, and Barker Harrison showed up with a cooler and announced that the night wouldn't be complete until someone chucked it from the upper deck. (Orioles Magic slowed to a sputter when Wild Bill protested the team's amended alcohol policy in 1985 by tossing his cooler and saying goodbye to Memorial Stadium for good.)

In the van en route to the stadium, Case hypothesized that "if you have a dozen guys in fake beards, it's a scientific fact that anything is possible," and Clapp immediately readjusted the odds to 3-2 that someone might make it atop the dugout.

I wasn't entirely sold on this magic business. Walking into the stadium, the group was met by plenty of curious stares.

Are they Amish farmers? Impersonating Moses, perhaps?

It didn't help that the Wild Bills were essentially dropped in enemy territory. With the Yankees in town, much of the ballpark was swathed in blue. The Roar from 34 is no more; Wild Bill's understudies had seats near the left-field foul pole in Section 72.

The crew of impersonators was 12 strong. Attendance was announced at 41,776. Those who took notice had no idea what to make of the group, cheering, chanting and screaming about a 0-0 ballgame.

With two outs in the third inning, an usher made his way down to Row MM. "You guys can't stand up," he said. "You're standing up too much."

Yep, the magic is surely dead, I thought.

But that's precisely when it happened. The sparkle had arrived. I'm not sure whether it was magic dust glistening under the stadium lights or the droplets of beer hanging in Wild Bill's fake beard.

First, Relish won the scoreboard hot dog race. Then Kevin Millar homered. Then Ramon Hernandez doubled to score Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff. And a ballpark of Yankees fans had been conquered by a dozen Wild Bills.

"Orioles magic," they sang a cappella. "Feel it happen."

Once an inning or so, a Wild Bill would leave his seat, scamper down the steps and turn to the crowd, contorting his body into the alphabet. "O-R-I-O-L-E-S!" he'd scream. It was Wild Bill's signature, the beer in his belly, the ink in his pen.

The Wild Bills got a wave started that circled the entire park. They appeared on the video scoreboard. They received hugs from girls and high-fives from guys. Other fans visited the section and snapped photos with their cell phones. One fan even handed over his ticket stub and a pen.

By the time Amber Theoharis, the in-game reporter for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, showed up in the middle of the sixth inning for a live interview, the Orioles were leading 4-0 and the spirit of Wild Bill was plenty alive at Camden Yards.

In the bottom of the seventh, Huff slapped a double to deep right, knocking in two. The Wild Bills - who had added a few members by this point, courtesy of some extra beards - erupted. They lifted Matt Wyskiel, 39, off the ground and passed him around Section 72, Row MM - a crowd-surfer, a trophy and, for a night, Wild Bill Hagy.

But do you still believe in magic?

By the middle of the eighth, the Orioles had silenced the Yankees fans. They were cruising toward a shutout. Louis Angelos, a classmate of many of the Wild Bills, had joined them in Section 72, and the usher failed in his second bid to quiet the group.

Across the stadium, the song played. Something magic happens/Every time you go.

Images of the original Wild Bill flashed on the scoreboard, and a Memorial Stadium vendor turned Aspen innkeeper turned Wild Bill impersonator appeared atop the dugout. Case had a pillow stuffed beneath his shirt and wore cut-off denim shorts. A fake beard covered his face and another hung out the back of his straw hat. He waved his hat and led yet another O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer.

So do you believe?

A cold drink and old memories don't erase a decade of futility. But history matters. The spirit of Wild Bill matters.

It's still out there, swilling cheap beer, waving a hat and refusing to be pushed around by tourists in Yankees caps.

Every now and then, you can still catch a glimpse of the magic. It reminds you of better times and makes you yearn for the day when the magic is not quite so rare.


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