First-timers join crowd at the yard

Orioles: For many of those at work or at play on Opening Day, there will never be another one like it.

April 06, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch and Sarah Pekkanen | Arthur Hirsch and Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

First pitches, first hits, first runs on the board. Baseball's Opening Day is nothing if not a day of firsts, a flavor of beginning, on and off the field.

A first pitch

If you've read Peanuts cartoons you've seen faces like this one: the big eyeglasses balanced on button nose, the baseball cap, the look of sweet bewilderment. It's no cartoon, though. It's a young woman on the threshold of a new frontier. Kimberly Hooper, 19, resident of Highlandtown, is about to embark on her first day as a vendor at Camden Yards.

"I heard about a job here through a relative of a friend who works here," says Hooper, a 1998 graduate of Patterson High School. She figured she'd give it a try, follow in the family tradition. Her father, Frank Hooper, was an usher at Memorial Stadium. She grew up hearing his stories, which tended to feature Earl Weaver bumping umpires and getting thrown out of ballgames.

But it's another season in another park and Hooper is mostly business. Not much chatter. For openers, she's not much of a baseball fan: "I can deal with it, I can deal without it." She's also not exactly bubbling over with pre-game adrenalin: "I'm kind of excited."

Ah, but baseball is a game of controlled intensity. Stay within yourself, they say. It's a long season.

More than 100 vendors are standing in the basement pre-game room waiting for their numbers to be called so they can pick something to sell and be assigned a spot in the park. She's standing there waiting, watching, this look on her face like she's got only the vaguest idea what's up. A kid in a cap waiting for a bus, not exactly sure where it's headed.

She's number 88, just like Albert Belle. Good sign for one of a handful of young women in a man's world. She chooses to sell pretzels -- the senior vendors have already picked the big-money goods such as beer, hot dogs, soda -- reports to a supply room on the upper deck concourse around left field and leaves with a container of pretzels that weighs about 20 pounds.

The kid says she didn't practice, didn't spend the last few days parading up and down Eastern Avenue shouting the ballpark menu. Didn't need to, she says. She's got some experience with vocal projection, she says. "I've done some acting with local theater," says Hooper, who with the St. Matthew's Players has performed in "The Music Man," "The King and I."

This is different, though. The crowd, the music. Hooper's first couple pitches hardly rise above the level of polite conversation: "Pretzels, pretzels." She lugs the tray up the steep steps, up into the lower stratosphere: "Pretzels, pretzels."

But before Mike Mussina throws his first pitch she has sold a pretzel and is getting the bark up around a low shout: "Pret-zaaaaals ..."

Hey, it's not just a start, it's a whole new beginning.

A first catch

Meet Chris Hare, 33, a mortgage banker from Towson. Note the bulge in his left jeans pocket, the bounce in his step and the look of a man favored by the gods on a day of sunshine and high spirits. Sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time.

Hare had left his seat in the left-field stands where he was watching the game with his father. Had a thought to check the action in the flag court, the standing-room area beyond the right-field scoreboard. That's where he was standing in the bottom of the third inning when new Oriole Albert Belle stepped to the plate. The shot he hit hung in the afternoon brightness a spell before coming to Earth a few feet away from Hare. It glanced off the hand of another fellow, deflected up and "I caught it right here."

Hare, a husky guy better than 6 feet tall, is cupping his hands just above his waist, the level of a friendly infield bounce. Nothing to it. Stuffed it into his pocket.

"You of all people," says a guy in the crowd. "That's money in the bank right there, buddy," says another.

Maybe, who knows. For now it's a moment. Hare, who works for Delta Funding, says he's been going to games since he was a kid and never before got a ball in the stands. Now this: not just any ball but a first -- Belle's first Oriole home run ball.

He's an instant celebrity among the beer guzzlers in standing room, gathering around, slapping him on the back.

"Why you? Why you?" demands one wiseguy.

No particular reason. The Universe said so, is all. And now Hare's on the move again, time to check in with the man who first showed him into a ballpark so many Opening Days ago.

"I think I'll go tell my father," says Hare.

A first day

Ma'am, please move your drink off the ledge -- we don't want it falling on people's heads, do we? Sure, I can help you find those seats -- just walk down six rows and go left. Sir, could you put out that cigarette, please?

Michael Ravenscroft's eyes never stop moving. He scans the upper-deck stands -- his domain -- for any sign of trouble, any hint that a rule is about to be broken. He clutches a white towel to wipe down seats. He stands, ramrod-straight, his back to the green diamond.

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