I'VE BEEN carrying the guilt for a long time now -- since Dec. 1, 1998, as a matter of fact.
That's the date Albert Belle put on an Orioles cap and offered up a $13 million smile.
Trouble was, he looked darn good. Must have been the hat.
And the guilt came with it. Until Dec. 1, I'd actually been very proud of myself -- and the day I struck out Mr. Belle with the bases loaded.
Until he became Oriole Albert Belle, I had never given a second thought to that outrageous moment a few years back when I exercised the right of being a hometown fan and attempted to change the course of a baseball game.
Here's the scene: Mr. Belle, then of the Cleveland Indians, already had three hits on the day. The Orioles were down by a pair of runs in the ninth inning, and here he comes again, with a menacing grand-slam stare.
The crowd was silent. Oriole Park syndrome. Maybe the fans were busy on their cell phones. But the Birds had done little to excite the crowd. Only pitching had kept the Orioles in the game, avoiding the big inning and keeping the Tribe's scoring mostly in check until this huge moment.
Just two runs down, I thought, the O's still have a chance.
Mr. Belle was behind in the count with two strikes, the ball was leaving the pitcher's hand, and -- in the cavernous silence of Oriole Park, where fan noise usually must be triggered by some unseen hand on the stadium sound system controls -- I cried out in my very best imitation of the umpire's voice:
Mr. Belle swung early. Three runners left on base.
Hands were pounding my back, and Mr. Belle was staring my way, and I started thinking that I'm a dead fan. Then he wheeled around and strode back to the dugout.
In the bottom of the ninth, alas, the Orioles did nothing to change the outcome of the game. There was only the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Belle strike out, and the thought that my little prank from a fourth-row box seat near home plate might have gotten him.
But now, Mr. Belle is a Bird. And I think about my grand moment of being a ballpark loudmouth, and wonder whether such action is as wrong as the gloved hand of a young Jeffrey Maier reaching out of the right-field bleachers to snatch a fly ball away from O's outfielder Tony Tarasco, turning an apparent flyout by shortstop Derek Jeter into a game-tying home run in 1996.
Fan behavior has gone south in recent years. We imitate umpires. We wave flags and long balloons as enemy basketball players try to concentrate on making foul shots. We raise such a din at football games that the opposing players can't hear their quarterback's play-calling.
Are such actions any different than reaching out to take away a foul pop from the first baseman?
Maier, 12, in retrospect, did no more than go with the instinct of trying to catch a ball. (And let us not forget that he botched the catch as badly as the umpire botched the call that day.)
But I shouted, "HEEEEEEEEEryyyke!" And Mr. Belle struck out.
Recently, I saw a chance to make amends. In early March, an hour before the Orioles' spring training home opener at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, I attempted to apologize to Mr. Belle.
Mr. Belle was standing near a trailer by the team offices. A chain-link fence separated us so I felt relatively safe.
"Hey, Albert," I called out. "Welcome to Baltimore."
He looked at me and nodded.
I was ready to broach the subject, to see if he remembered that strikeout, and stepped closer to the fence.
"Hey," I said, "can I ask you a question?"
"Nope, you can't," he replied in an unmistakeably unreceptive tone.
I took the hint.
And now I'm confused. I'm no longer sure if I'm sorry. But I want to be sorry.
It's the confusion, I guess, that goes with being an Orioles fan these days.
David Michael Ettlin, an assistant metropolitan editor for The Sun, spends far too much time worrying about baseball -- and wishes Albert Belle his most productive season ever.
Pub Date: 4/01/99