Optimism hard to come by in the stands

Ballgame: At Opening Day, even die-hard fans find it tough to muster hope for a winning season.

April 04, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

If baseball is a metaphor for life, Opening Day embodies hope.

All teams are tied for first. The sins of a year gone by are washed clean. Spring portends renewal, and every man has his chance. So say the pundits.

But in Oriole country, the angst of a botched last season seems to have put even the staunchest optimism to the test. As a warm April sun played peek-a-boo with banks of low-lying clouds yesterday, the chatter among fans in Camden Yards' Section 8, just off the right-field foul pole, played out like a debate between expectancy and despair.

Even the youngest fan to offer an opinion was pessimistic. To Vinnie DiPietro, 19, it makes no difference that team management made so many moves in the off-season. It wasn't enough.

"They'll be a little better," he said of the Orioles, "but the bottom line is, the Yankees are the best. We have to beat them eventually. And they're clearly the better team."

If DiPietro -- who was seeing his fourth straight Opening Day with his dad, Vinnie, 46 -- had any optimism at all, it was of a contrary kind. "Hey, [pitcher Scott] Erickson has an arm injury," he said. "Maybe when he comes back, he'll keep the ball down for once." Even the memory of last year's Opening Day win didn't cheer him. "We beat the Royals," he said. "That doesn't count."

Fred Baechli, 31, of Washington and a self-professed "Oriole fan from birth" sounded equally bleak, if more wistful. "The team doesn't follow the Oriole way any more," he said, citing a magazine article that stressed that point. "They think they can just buy a team through free agency, but that's not the way to do it. You find good high-school players. You teach fundamentals. You build from within."

As he spoke, a shirtless fan several rows back offered a more succinct sentiment. "Losers!" he cried. "Angelos go home!"

The subject of the O's prospects triggered debate, though. Four seats over, Steve Held, 43, a computer consultant from Laurel, said that in the Orioles and the Indians, fans were seeing the two best teams in the American League. "They both have more depth than anyone else," he said, Yankees included, and suggested that new manager Mike Hargrove was the right man to get the most out of his largely veteran team.

Held felt good, in fact, about the whole tradition surrounding the Orioles. "I have clients all over the country who want to come here to see the O's," he said. "That's the first thing they ask: Can you get us tickets to the ballgame?"

Maybe the deepest optimism, like wisdom, comes with age. For Marge Heffner, it's a fan's duty to be optimistic. Heffner, 75, and friend Dorothy Rosendale, 76, have attended every Opening Day at Camden Yards and have been Orioles fans for more than three decades.

"Everybody keeps saying it's an old team," says Heffner. "I don't think that's right. It's not old; it's experienced! It's like with any job: You want people who know what they're doing, not just a bunch of youngsters."

Her prediction for the O's: A first-place finish. "It can't be no other way!" she said. And how many games will they win? If she had to pick a number, Heffner said, it would be 162.

The instant she says her favorite player is Cal Ripken, the third baseman strokes a ball to right-center, rounds first and barrels into second with a double. She jumps to her feet with a whoop, claps her hands and gives a hearty laugh.

"I'll always have faith," Heffner cried, "as long as Cal's in there."

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