Gimme an `O' who can draw a crowd

March 04, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

I AM STANDING in Stadium Sports at Harborplace, staring at a rack of uniform T-shirts with Hairston and Ponson and Bordick stenciled on the backs, when the store manager, a sharp guy named Jimmy McClain, sums up the major problem with this year's Orioles.

"Interest in the team has definitely dropped," McClain says. "People come in and say, `I'm not gonna go to the stadium because Cal Ripken's gone' or `I'm not gonna go to the stadium and watch a bunch of nobodies.' I hear it all the time."

If Jimmy McClain, a guy who grew up in South Baltimore bleeding orange and black, hears it all the time, then the Orioles must be hearing it, too.

From their spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, word trickles north about the probable shape of this year's team: Jerry Hairston and Mike Bordick and Marty Cordova, Jeff Conine and Tony Batista and Chris Singleton and the wonderfully named Buddy Groom, who sounds like he should be behind the piano during happy hour in a Ramada lounge.

Not exactly a team laden with superstars, is it?

Or even regular stars, if you want to get picky.

So with the great Cal Ripken retired, with popular Brady Anderson exiled to Cleveland and good-guy Mike Mussina lost to the hated Yankees two years ago, it becomes fair to ask this question: Does anybody care about this team?

Will anyone come out to watch these guys play?

Or will Camden Yards, still the Rolls-Royce of major league ballparks, feature vast stretches of empty seats this season, and an even higher rate of cell-phone jabbering by the fans who do show up?

Standing here in Stadium Sports, which is deserted 45 minutes before noon on a Friday, Jimmy McClain says he still cares about the Orioles.

He's 32, which means he's in the demographic the Orioles lust after above all others: young, rabid baseball fan with enough cash in his pocket to spring for the $4 hot dogs and $6 microbrews, not to mention the usurious parking fees, which they might as well collect wearing a stocking mask and waving a gun.

"Cal was the big name, yeah," McClain says. "But we all knew the day was gonna come when he'd be gone. ... I'm a die-hard O's fan. You've got to live with your team through thick and thin.

"Lately, it's been a little more thin than thick. But you've got to live with thin if you're a [real] fan."

Jimmy McClain aside, though, you can understand why some Oriole fans are turned off right now, exasperated at the Orioles' never-ending search for a team identity.

Going into last season, after unloading veterans like B.J. Surhoff and Will Clark and Bordick the summer before, the Orioles decided to go with youth as their focus.

Thus was born the energetic "The kids are coming to play!" promotional campaign, complete with funny commercials showing young players such as Sidney Ponson and Hairston and Chris Richard in coming-of-age moments at Camden Yards: romping amid the sprinklers in the outfield, chowing down on crabs for the first time, getting shaving tips from manager Mike Hargrove.

It was a cute campaign, as these things go. (And believe me, these ad campaigns can get REAL sappy.)

But the kids themselves turned out to have one teeny, tiny problem: They stunk it up on the field.

OK, that might be a tad too harsh.

SOME of them stunk it up. And a lot of the others didn't exactly dazzle Oriole fans, either.

Hairston, the second baseman, hit just .233. Brook Fordyce, the young catcher, hit .209. Right-hander Ponson won five games and lost 10 and gave up so many homers you thought he was throwing the ball underhanded.

The team finished with a 63-98 record, next-to-last in their division, with the second-worst record in the American League.

And the reaction from a lot of Orioles fans seemed to be: Look, we'll come out to see the kids play.

We just don't want to see the kids play like butchers.

So this year, the Orioles' identity is ... well, um, who knows exactly?

It's probably too early to tell. There are some key veterans on this team, Conine and Scott Erickson and Bordick and David Segui. And then there are the, well, kids.

What there ISN'T, of course, is a lot of star power. And it's star power that puts fans in the seats.

Still, the absence of superstars is fine with Jimmy McClain, even if it's not fine with a lot of other O's fans.

"I'm all for big-name players," said McClain. "But I want 'em to be young. And I want 'em to stick around for a while."

In the meantime, he said, he'll continue to root for the Orioles, even if they might have their own fans asking on Opening Day: Which one is Tony Batista?

The other day, for example, a woman came into McClain's store, glanced at an Orioles pocket schedule, and noticed they open the season with a three-game series against the evil Yankees.

"Oh," she said, making a face like you'd make if you found a dead rat in your sink, "we open with THEM."

"Oh, let's see what we're made of!" McClain said. "We could put the Yankees in a tailspin right at the beginning of the season. They'd be suicidal if they lost three to us!"

Say, maybe that could be this year's promotional campaign: "If you lose to us, you're really bad!"

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