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For a change, it's fun to be a fan

The Baltimore Sun

The gathering of civic leaders was meant to celebrate the coming Dew Tour event at Camden Yards. But all anyone could talk about, Mike Gibbons noticed, was the Orioles.

Afterward, Gibbons, executive director of the Sports Legends Museum, walked over to watch that night's game. "You could feel the excitement of 32,000, and it was tangible beyond anything I've felt there since we were in the playoffs against Cleveland in 1997," he said.

More recently, his son was out of town for a baseball tournament and phoned home several times to get updates on Orioles games.

"I bring these examples up," Gibbons said, "because I think the community does sense a turn for the better with their baseball team."

Nearing the season's midpoint, the Orioles, predicted to lose 100 games by many experts, have won more than they've lost - restoring some pride to the organization and the city. Their 41-38 mark (through Saturday's game) might not evoke memories of championship teams in 1966 or 1970 or 1983, but for a fan base battered by 10 years of losing records and directionless management, it's a start.

The chatter on bar stools and talk radio programs has shifted from "Oh no, we didn't think they could get any worse" to "Gee, they're not so bad." Attendance and TV ratings are up. And fans have begun to express faith in team president Andy MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley.

"It's like they're a new team," said Amanda Roberts, a paralegal from Parkville who walked to Camden Yards during her lunch break Thursday to buy tickets. "I'd always support them, because I grew up here, and that's just what you do. But it's much easier this year."

It'll be easier still, she said, when the team puts "Baltimore" back on its road jerseys, a goodwill announcement that has distinguished this season.

The Orioles just won two of three games at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, the team with what was then baseball's best record. After the nine-game road trip that ends today against the Washington Nationals, the Orioles return to Camden Yards to face the Kansas City Royals tomorrow night.

This year's team has won fans over by specializing in comebacks and one-run wins. Fans have also embraced a slew of new players - from closer George Sherrill with his straight-billed cap to center fielder Adam Jones, whose composed, thoughtful demeanor belies his age.

Given recent second-half collapses and a lack of All-Star talent, many fans don't expect the winning to keep up. But even skeptics seem enchanted for the moment.

"I mean, I really love this team," said Jayson Hill of Pasadena, who has followed the Orioles for 30 years. "If they lost every game from here out, I'd still love them. You can't put a price tag on cardiac kids and that style of play. Being at an Orioles game now has such suspense and excitement. Even watching the games on TV has become fun again."

Though the lineup remains full of veterans such as Melvin Mora and Kevin Millar, fans feel they're watching a fresh product.

"I would say the biggest change is that people have less to complain about; they're less angry," said Steve Davis, who fields dozens of Orioles calls a day for his evening sports talk show on WBAL (1090 AM). "We have a team that exceeds expectations, and when was the last time you could say that here? It's kind of like reaching a hand in your pocket every morning and finding a $20 bill. It's a pleasant surprise."

The more optimistic tone is reflected, modestly, in attendance and television ratings. The Orioles have drawn 27,531 fans a game, better than 2,000 a game more than at the same point last season (though an unfavorable late-season schedule could mitigate that improvement).

Team officials have expressed cautious optimism about the figures, saying they expect to hold steady or improve slightly from last season's average of 27,060, the second-lowest attendance since the club moved to Camden Yards in 1992.

TV ratings on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network have improved from 3.1 (which equates to 3.1 percent of television households in the market) last year to 3.3 this year in Baltimore, and from 0.5 to 0.8 in Washington.

The spirit of renewal isn't lost on the players.

"For me, it's been one of the most fun seasons I've ever had," said Aubrey Huff, who infuriated fans with offseason criticism about Baltimore but has wooed them back with 14 home runs. "The game is fun again for me. Obviously, going into spring training, there were a lot of question marks, a lot of doubt. But playing this well for this long has kind of turned that around."

The Orioles have charmed fans in part by managing expectations. Past regimes claimed that first place wasn't far off, even though others around baseball saw a ship without first-rate sailors or much of a course.

Going into this season, MacPhail and Trembley acknowledged a true rebuilding effort and promised only that the team would give its best effort day after day. Given that MacPhail had just traded his best hitter, Miguel Tejada, and his best pitcher, Erik Bedard, outside observers thought the club could be the worst in baseball.

ESPN analyst and former Sun Orioles beat writer Buster Olney predicted a whopping 106 losses. Last week, he admitted in an online chat that his prediction had been "blown out of the water."

"What they've accomplished this year in spite of their apparent roster weaknesses is really extraordinary." Olney said.

If the Orioles are wowing analysts with their competence, imagine how happy they have made long-suffering fans.

"At this point in the year, people are much more optimistic than they were last season," said Tom Leonard, who manages Pickles Pub, a popular pre-game hangout across the street from Camden Yards.

He sees more and more fans entering with straight-brimmed hats, a nod to Sherrill's style. And he has noticed that fans no longer roll out of the park or bar in the sixth or seventh inning.

"They hang around until the last inning," he said. "They really believe this team will come back."

The Orioles have come from behind in more than half of their wins, so that isn't a bad bet.

"There's no quit in this team," said Wayne Ridgeway of Millersville, who has bought tickets to six games this year after attending only three in 2007. "That hasn't been the case in recent seasons. If it keeps going, I think Trembley has to be up for Manager of the Year."

Fans talk about MacPhail's plan for the club without a hint of the sarcasm or fatalism they reserved for his predecessors.

"For the first time in many years, I feel like maybe our ownership has hired a true baseball genius and will let him rebuild this franchise," said Fallston resident Steve Morlock, a fan for 45 years.

Skepticism lingers for some, and it's not hard to understand why. The club's most appalling collapses in recent seasons have come after the All-Star break. There was the 4-32 finish in 2002. And the 8-18 July, followed by a steroid suspension for Rafael Palmeiro, that ruined a winning first half in 2005. And don't forget the 30-3 loss last August that began a 3-18 stretch.

If you think all that is past, consider a few points.

This year's Orioles have actually given up more runs than they have scored.

Their 17-11 record in one-run contests might be a tribute to the bullpen, but it might also mean they've been plain lucky, some analysts say.

Oh, and they're still stuck in fourth place. Even if the Orioles improve for real, their division remains an imposing mountain to climb. The Red Sox are smart and rich. The Yankees have the league's best player in Alex Rodriguez and are richer still. The Tampa Bay Rays, after years of miserable play, have the best young talent in baseball.

WBAL's Davis says he won't be shocked if the Orioles hit a skid and fans are ready to look ahead to the Ravens by early August. But when listeners start with gloomy predictions, he urges them to stop and live in the moment.

"I tell them to just enjoy it," he said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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