As summer nears, numbed Orioles fans seek shelter--at the ballpark

May 26, 1991|By Dan Fesperman

Each night they come by the tens of thousands, as abidingly faithful in their attendance as parents trooping to a grade school pageant. They take their seats, thumb through programs and then watch in anguished embarrassment as their delinquent children commit further barbarous crimes against baseball.

Here it is, only Memorial Day weekend, and the desolate prospect of a summer in the cellar already looms for Orioles fans, with nowhere to hide from the gloom.

Even the most splendid of mornings brings last night's score to ** the doorstep. But far worse are the day's final hours, which bring baseball talk shows to the radio in a nightly ritual of tortured catharsis. Local accents lament bygone glories, then crackle out one preposterous remedy after another for the wayward "O-Reos." After a particularly galling loss, the sum of unreasoned whining can rival a stadium full of cranky babies squalling for milk and a nap.

Yet, come the next night, 30,000 of the most deeply wounded will show up at Memorial Stadium to do it all again.

After all, it's the only game in town.

Which makes the pain that much worse for fans such as Steve Simon, a lifelong Baltimorean.

"I'm a tremendous sports fan," he said, watching a Sam Horn drive curl to the wrong side of the right field foul pole Friday night at the stadium. "But without the football team, this is it."

Friday was supposed to be a time for starting over -- the first game for new manager Johnny Oates, and Mr. Simon was excited about the prospect. He and his buddy, Kevin Weiner, go to about 25 games a season, "win, lose or draw," as Mr. Simon put it. At this rate, with the last-place Orioles owning the second-worst home record in baseball, he'd be happy with a draw. Friday only proved to be more of the same, a miserable 7-1 loss to the Yankees.

"Even the bad teams like the Phillies are winning their games at home," he said, watching the game unravel. As he completed the thought, the usually flawless Cal Ripken Jr. muffed a ground ball at shortstop.

"This is like watching history," Mr. Simon lamented. Indeed, Cal made only three errors all of last season. But an inning later, Cal added a second volume to the evening's history lesson, flinging a throw over the catcher's head.

After four innings, it was already 4-0 Yankees. The Orioles stayed hitless until the seventh, while five Oriole pitchers busied themselves donating 10 hits, five walks, three wild pitches and an error to the enemy cause.

And too bad, for it was such a beautiful night. The walk to the stadium through the surrounding streets had been perfumed with the heavy sweetness of neighborhood gardens, a sensation that will be gone with the new stadium.

Last night, things didn't get any better. The Orioles lost to the Yankees again, 6-5, and another 36,459 of the faithful showed up to whine, dine and go home mad.

In a sense, this season's problems are even harder to take than The Streak, the infamous 21-game slide that opened the 1988 season. Not only was it mesmerizing in its own bizarre way, but it was also a relief, with its implicit promise that things could only get better.

And they did, with the near-miracle turnaround of 1989. But now even that season is a mixed blessing, viewed by some fans as a false harbinger of better times, much like a dying man's last rallying outburst of clear-headed vigor.

"I think that right now people are starting to look at '89 as a fluke," Mr. Weiner said in a tone of resignation.

It also doesn't help that all this pessimism contrasts so greatly with the days when hope was ever present, no matter how bad things were going. Through the late 1960s, most of the '70s and up through '83, the Orioles would be in the thick of things well into September. And when all else failed, there were a couple of Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, to bail out the team.

The only Robinson left in the dugout Friday was an erratic pitcher named Jeff, who in the fourth inning headed off the mound in defeat for an early shower.

Rob Ivry watched it all in near-disbelief. Twelve years ago his 3-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was the youngest initiate to the crazies of famous Section 34. For 12 years running she got a birthday card from Eddie Murray (he stopped after his trade to the Dodgers). As the '79 World Series began, Mr. Ivry hung up on a job offer to turn to the more important matter of baseball. And sitting on his lap for the Series' first game at Memorial Stadium that year was his 4-month-old son, Greg, sporting an orange pacifier.

Now Mr. Ivry lives in New York, daring to keep an Orioles sticker on the bumper of his car. But when he journeys south for a ballgame, ever faithful to the cause, he's mystified.

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