The `kids' of summer

Baseball: Some wail that favorite Orioles have left the roost, but for most fans, optimism springs eternal on Opening Day.

April 02, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Aaron Bernstein is the kind of guy who would make an Orioles shrine out of the guest room in his Federal Hill home if his girlfriend would let him. He keeps a shoebox full of old ticket stubs near his bed. And he has never left a game for a rain delay or before the last pitch. Ever.

The 29-year-old mortgage broker can't abide Baltimore fans who have swapped their orange for purple and would rather root for that other Baltimore bird. He likes the Ravens as much as the next man. But Opening Day is here -- give the kids a chance.

"Learn the merits of loyalty," Bernstein says to anyone disaffected with the home baseball team. "I'm tired of the whining."

When the Baltimore Orioles start their season at 3:05 p.m. today, a younger, less experienced team will take the field against the Boston Red Sox. About 48,000 people will be watching from the stands at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, most playing hooky from work or school.

Like every year, fans will jockey for tickets. Others forgo any attempt to get in, preferring to party in the streets and bars surrounding the stadium. Extra police and city parking agents will be watching.

But many of the Orioles faithful are far from elated. Gone are veteran outfielder B. J. Surhoff, catcher Charles Johnson and pitching ace Mike Mussina, traded by team owner Peter G. Angelos or allowed to leave via free agency.

"Fans are willing to give `the kids' a chance," said Jay Sweren, invoking the club's new description for its young team. "But I don't think they trust the Oriole brain trust," said Sweren, 59, of Owings Mills. "Nobody thinks they know what they're doing. We have an owner who doesn't know diddly about baseball."

Some fans are bitter about the battle between the team and its landlord, the Maryland Stadium Authority, over more favorable lease terms, which could cost taxpayers millions of dollars for rent discounts and improvements.

And this when fans are still giddy from the Ravens' astonishing win in the Super Bowl and distracted by the University of Maryland making the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tourney.

"It'll be a big test of the season the first few weeks to see if the Orioles are going to hold everybody's interest," said Larry Leonardi, 36, general manager of Padonia Station sports bar on York Road. "They say, `Come watch the kids play?' It's like, `Why? They need baby sitters?'"

The Orioles have sold 100,000 fewer tickets this year than last, said team spokesman Bill Stetka. By Opening Day 2000, the team had sold 2.5 million tickets, compared with 2.4 million this year.

Corrinne Chellis, 25, and her family have had season tickets since 1984. But this is her last year buying them. Her first memory as a child is going to Memorial Stadium with her father, she says.

"Angelos has taken away every player we love," said Chellis, a fiber-optic engineer from Ellicott City. "Baltimore wants to support the team, but the owner has made it impossible."

Leonardi says he's seen more Ravens fans in his bar recently than Orioles fans.

"I know my loyalty has changed a bit," said Leonardi, who grew up watching Orioles games at Memorial Stadium with his grandfather and brothers. "It's a `jumping on the bandwagon' kind of thing. I used to not be interested in football until we got a team. Now I live and die football. I'd rather watch football year-round."

Fans are fickle, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts. "And they go with winners. It's not unique to Baltimore to get a flip-flop like that. If the Orioles became great all of a sudden, you'd see a fast turnaround."

But other cities that have celebrated a Super Bowl win, then slid into baseball season continued to ride a sports wave, said Bernie Miklasz, a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Baltimore-area native who formerly covered the Colts for the News American.

After the St. Louis Rams won the 2000 Super Bowl, Rams owner Georgia Frontiere threw out the first pitch for the Cardinals' Opening Day.

"What they did was, they embraced the Rams. That made fans happy and projected this united, harmonious front," Miklasz said. "The Cardinals players and Rams players were hugging. They turned the day over to the Rams. It was a gooey, sappy St. Louis sports love fest. After that, it was on to baseball. It showed a lot of class."

That won't be happening in Baltimore.

Throwing out the first pitches will be NASA astronauts and native Baltimoreans Cmdr. Robert Curbeam Jr., and Dr. Thomas Jones. Last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley did the honors, and in years past, the president.

Singing the national anthem will be Tom Wopat, star of the Broadway production of "Annie Get Your Gun," who played Luke Duke in "The Dukes of Hazzard" television series.

Asked if the Ravens would have a role in Opening Day ceremonies, Orioles spokesman Stetka said: "Probably not."

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