Current Orioles not name brand, but fans are sold

Post-Ripken players aren't on tips of tongues, but working way to hearts

April 02, 2002|By Scott Calvert and Johnathon E. Briggs | Scott Calvert and Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

So what if one fan referred to outfielder Jay Gibbons as "Gibson"? If another wore her black-and-orange Mike Mussina jersey as if he were still the Orioles' ace? Or if some knew more about, say, 1970s pitchers than today's mostly unheralded staff?

Fans who packed Camden Yards yesterday for Opening Day happily gave the no-Cal Orioles the benefit of the doubt. It didn't hurt that the team defeated the vaunted New York Yankees, 10-3, on a blustery, blue-sky day.

"I don't think anyone knows what to expect. There are a lot of people I've never heard of," said Derek Puffenbarger, 28, after celebrating Tony Batista's fourth-inning grand slam. "They're showing me a lot."

This is hardly the first season the Orioles have had a roster full of prospects. But it is the first time in decades that the team has been bereft of a marquee player. No Ripken, Murray, Palmer or Robinson.

"It's hard to look at these guys," said Marco Gulotta, 24, of the city's Violetville section. "I don't see the Orioles. You don't see Cal, Brady [Anderson], any of those guys."

Asked to name the lineup, Chris Evans of Woodbine didn't get out of the infield. "Second base will be, let's see if I can think of his name. His name escapes me." His name is Jerry Hairston.

Evans, a 41-year-old lifelong fan, spoke highly of Gibbons - except he called him Gibson.

Later, Edward Pearce, 26, joked that he and his friends "know more bench coaches than players." He's no halfhearted fan, either. The Federal Hill resident attended 29 games in 2000, and even then he couldn't keep pace with his fiancee, Rebecca Burke, who made it to 33.

Yesterday may have been the start of the Orioles' season, but it was also the end of the road for the Maryland Terrapins, and many minds were on last night's NCAA men's basketball championship.

It was common to see the same person sporting an Orioles cap and "Fear the Turtle" T-shirt. Inexplicably, some fans even saw a big play for the Orioles as a good omen for the Terps, predicting, "Tonight's going to be a great night!" In one especially odd moment, a young man in red suddenly started shouting, "Terps! Ravens! Terps!"

Even so, it was easy to find fans focused on baseball. Some came armed with as much knowledge as excitement. Grant Ducker, who is 7 1/2 and has been a fan since he was "1 or 2," had no problem rattling off players.

"Chris Singleton. Melvin Mora. Larry Bigbie. Marty Cordova. Josh Towers. Jason Johnson." Grant couldn't quite remember reliever Willis Roberts' name, but he got his number right: 37.

How does he know so much? By watching SportsCenter every morning, he said. He wore his affection on his sleeve, head and all over his body: Orioles cap, shirt, pants.

Grant, his friend James Morse ("I'm 6 3/4 ") and their families drove two hours from Winchester, Va., yesterday morning, then stood in line for two more hours to buy tickets at the scalp-free zone.

They had to be there. So did Tamir Waser, a State Department employee from Alexandria, Va. He scheduled a trip to West Africa so he would be back in time.

Chuck Fogle, 39, made his 11th straight trip to the first game. Not that his neighbors back in New Freedom, Pa., necessarily would have recognized him. His face was painted orange, with "O's fan" written in black. He wore sneakers painted fluorescent orange, and his ear bore not one, not two, but three bird earrings.

Fogle is not expecting much from the Orioles - "I'm hoping to see them get to at least .500" - but that was almost beside the point yesterday. In fact, some fans said they were prepared for a rebuilding year and hoped Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos would be patient.

Evans put it this way: "I'd like to see the next Cal Ripken come up through the system so I can say I saw him when he was nothing."

Burke, who is writing a college paper comparing our fast-paced society with efforts to speed up baseball, said the pursuit of instant gratification via free agency has flopped. "We've been losing for so long with good players," she said. "I'd rather lose with up-and-coming players."

Pearce, her fiancee, cheered lustily for the players, even if he didn't know much about them. When catcher Geronimo Gil was announced, he trilled his R's, shouting, "Gerrrrrronimo!"

On the whole, fans were well-behaved. Police said they arrested four on scalping charges and ejected two for disorderly conduct.

One complaint was parking. Downtown garages were jammed with so many employees still at work at game time. Dennis and Nancy Hunter, who live in Manassas, Va., usually park in stadium lots but had to park on the street.

As they left the ballpark to chants of "Let's go, Maryland!" she wondered aloud, "I hope our car is still there."

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