SALISBURY -- Frank Robinson looked up from signing autographs in the Salisbury Mall to find a woman staring at him.
"I never saw you so close," she said sheepishly. "I just had to stand and look."
"What do you think?" he said.
"Just like on TV," she said.
"That bad, huh?" he said, smiling.
Robinson, manager John Oates and pitcher Jim Poole were seated at tables in the mall as the featured members of the Orioles' first goodwill caravan of the year.
Caravans are taking Orioles ambassadors to Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and other parts of Maryland. This week, for the first time, a group visited North Carolina. The club will hold its Winter Carnival tomorrow at Martin's West in Baltimore.
For more than two hours here last week, Robinson, Oates and Poole signed photographs, programs,T-shirts, towels, balls and bats for 1,200 fans who stood patiently in a line that stretched 300 feet from Florsheim Shoes to the Warehouse Food Market.
To entertain the people in line, there were trivia questions (Q: Who is the only man to manage the Orioles twice? A: Earl Weaver), with winners receiving autographed balls.
At 8:40 p.m., before the Orioles party boarded the bus for the return trip to Baltimore, there still were 150 people in line. Stacey Beckwith, assistant community relations director, had the foresight to collect a pack of signed photographs, which she distributed to the remaining fans so they wouldn't go away angry.
"Twelve hundred people and no complaints," Beckwith said. "Well, there was one lady who was mean. The rule was an autograph from each of our three guys per person, but she had Frank sign a glove, a card, a ball and four photos and got indignant when I told her no more."
The first stop had been Cambridge, where WCEM Radio, which carries Orioles games, arranged lunch for 100, including its clients, employees and the general public. As usual, the longest line for autographs was in front of Robinson.
"No wonder, 586 home runs," Poole marveled as he surveyed the scene. "No. 4 behind Aaron, Ruth and Mays."
The Orioles gave away calendars, posters, photos, baseballs and T-shirts in a drawing. When he got up to speak, after signing autographs, Oates told the parents that "all your kids said thank you after we signed."
Oates said he never fully comprehended what it meant to be an Oriole until the ceremony to celebrate the final game at Memorial Stadium last October.
"We went back in the clubhouse and watched on TV," Oates said. "We saw Brooks Robinson go on the field and fans were crying. Bill Ripken and some of our guys laughed at that.
"Then out went Jim Palmer, and the close-up shot showed he was crying. The clubhouse went suddenly silent. We realized then what it means to be a Baltimore Oriole."
The questions from the Cambridge audience, many of them posed by youngsters, were intelligent and varied.
Q (for Robinson): "Who was your role model when you were growing up?"
A: "My parents." Applause.
Q (for Oates): "What do you think of Cal [Ripken]?"
A: "I think he's a pretty good third-base coach. Seriously, Junior not only does it on the field but in the clubhouse as well. He led us in our meetings, telling young infielders where to play certain hitters. He positioned them himself during games."
Robinson is good at these functions. He heckles, teases, glares and rolls his eyes. He hurls insults, but always softens them with a smile.
After lunch, 30 more people lined up for autographs. "I know I signed some of these before lunch," he growled. Then he proceeded to accommodate all 30.
In the children's ward at Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, The Bird was the star. The eyes of tonsil, pneumonia and sickle-cell anemia patients lighted up at the appearance of the Orioles mascot.
"The Bird's stealing our thunder," Robinson said.
"Hospitals are the hardest part for me," Oates said. "You realize these kids are sick, yet they still manage to smile, so the least we can do is smile, too."
Wednesday: Hanover, Pa., Rotary Club dinner
Thursday: Ad Club luncheon at Baltimore Hyatt
Thursday: Lancaster, Pa., dinner and banquet
Jan. 31: Washington, D.C./Montgomery County caravan, with stops at Touchdown Club, Children's Hospital and Wheaton Plaza
Feb. 1: Northern Virginia mini-carnival, Robinson High in Fairfax, Va.
Feb. 5: York, Pa., sports night
Feb. 8: Baltimore County Clinic, Parkville High