Orioles' faithful flock to event

FanFest: About 16,000 go to the Baltimore Convention Center for a wintertime taste of baseball season.

January 24, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Not biting temperatures in the 20s, not a forecast of snow, not even last season's fourth-place finish in the American League East could deter thousands of black-and-orange-clad faithful from attending Orioles FanFest 2000.

At the Baltimore Convention Center, fans gathered yesterday to talk baseball, buy souvenirs and check out displays of memorabilia while the familiar aroma of $3.50 hot dogs wafted through the halls.

"It's the middle of winter. It's cold outside," said Larry Miller, 51, a Social Security employee from Eldersburg, as he stood in line to meet former Orioles manager and Hall of Famer Earl Weaver. "But baseball is back, as far as I'm concerned."

The Orioles love-fest that sprawled across 300,000 square feet on three floors drew an estimated 16,000 visitors throughout the weekend.

Fans asked new manager Mike Hargrove how he would turn around the Orioles, had their faces painted with glittery "yardbirds" and had their pictures taken with players such as pitcher Mike Mussina.

The midwinter Orioles carnival was first held in the mid-1980s as a one-day celebration of baseball at Memorial Stadium. It grew so large over the years, Orioles management decided to move it from Oriole Park at Camden Yards to the Convention Center in 1998. That was also the year it drew the most attendance, as 18,000 fans showed up to toast the home team after a stellar 1997 season, said Bill Stetka, Orioles public relations director.

Those who checked out FanFest yesterday professed they are rabid Orioles fans even though the last two lackluster seasons have been painful.

"Players sometimes have off seasons," said Dennis Solle, 50, who drove an hour from his home in Delta, Pa., yesterday and the day before to attend. "You can't win a championship every year."

Many fans brought their children to the event not only so they could meet their baseball heroes but also to try out the batting and pitching cages. Jane and Mike Riley of Towson rounded out their two children's afternoon of baseball with a lunch of hot dogs, nachos and pretzels.

"This is the full Camden Yards experience," said Jane Riley, 46, a speech pathologist. "We spent $50 on food."

Jessica Hobbs, 16, of Ellicott City excitedly stood in line for almost an hour to get a picture with Mussina to add to her bedroom shrine to the ace pitcher.

Jumping up and down -- and occasionally squealing, "He's so hot!" -- the 10th-grader shooed away two high school friends as she reached the front of the line so she could be the sole focus of her idol for the moment it took to snap a photograph.

When Jessica giddily took her place next to Mussina, he placed his arm around her, she beamed even more, the camera clicked and she reluctantly left him to walk over to her friends, giving them an exuberant two thumbs up.

"This is a story I'll tell my grandchildren," gushed Jessica, who said she's been a Mussina fan for three years. "My dad has always liked the Orioles so I watched them. I saw [Mussina] as I got older, and I thought, `Not bad.' Then I noticed he's a good pitcher, too."

Orioles first baseman Will Clark said he was glad for the opportunity to talk to fans.

"When you play 81 games at home, if you have a good rapport with the fans it makes the season go a little faster," Clark said.

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