Leading Roles

A casting call makes Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez the headline attractions for a franchise seeking a new identity.

The Orioles

April 02, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The souvenir stand tells the story of a proud franchise awakening from a deep slumber.

Don Eney has been stocking the shelves at Camden Yards since 1997, a time when Orioles fans would line up to buy jerseys with Cal Ripken's No. 8, Brady Anderson's No. 9 and Mike Mussina's No. 35.

Those stars left, and that era ended. Sales plummeted. For the past two years, Eney has filled the shelves with nameless and numberless Orioles jerseys. The rare fan who wanted a Jay Gibbons jersey or a Melvin Mora jersey had to wait.

"We ordered them blank," Eney said.

The Orioles were no-names, indeed. Every winter, the fans would cross their fingers, hoping that would change.

Then, finally, it did.

With one huge spending spree, the Orioles have brought the big names back to Baltimore for a season that starts Sunday night, on national television.

The Orioles spent $99 million on shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro for reasons that go well beyond what they can do for the middle of the batting order.

Eney, a retail general manager for Aramark Sports and Entertainment, has already placed orders for hundreds of customized jerseys with Tejada's No. 10, Lopez's No. 18 and Palmeiro's No. 25.

He expects sales to skyrocket, especially if the Orioles start winning.

Drawing attention

This is what happens when a team has an offseason like the one the Orioles just completed. The national media take notice. Franchise hero Brooks Robinson gives his stamp of approval. Even the mayor gets excited.

"One of the things I've noticed since becoming mayor is that nothing brings people together across race and class lines like a winning sports team," Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a recent e-mail. "We saw it when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

"A lot more people are fired up about the O's chances this year. I know I'm planning on making a few more games. It just feels different - I mean it snowed last year on Opening Day."

O'Malley obviously knew it was a bad omen when last year's season opener was delayed because of snow. The Orioles eventually won that game against the Cleveland Indians, but they went on to finish their sixth consecutive losing season at 71-91.

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, who had spent their first year in office largely in an evaluation mode, started making some swift changes. They fired manager Mike Hargrove and replaced him with New York Yankees first base coach Lee Mazzilli.

Then, they began adding big-name players.

Tejada, who won the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player award with the Oakland Athletics, signed for $72 million over six years.

Lopez, who hit 43 home runs for the Atlanta Braves last season, signed for $22.5 million over three years.

And then Palmeiro, who slugged his 500th career home run with the Texas Rangers last year, returned to the Orioles on a one-year, $4.5 million deal with an option for 2005.

Moves overdue

For Robinson, a Hall of Fame third baseman, those additions went a long way toward restoring the franchise's credibility.

"They had to make a move, that's all," Robinson said in a phone interview from California. "Palmeiro should have never left [after the 1998 season]. Mussina should have never left [after the 2000 season]. It was a matter of not really pulling the trigger when they should have.

"You can't do that in today's game. It's different. It's a players' game. They've got a lot of options on where they want to play.

"What's happening now gives me a lot of enthusiasm for the future. When you finish 10 to 20 games under .500 every year, it's not fun for anyone, especially for me."

The lean years have taken their toll. In 1997, the Orioles drew 3.71 million fans to Camden Yards, and attendance has dropped steadily every year since, slipping to 2.45 million last season.

Ripken retired in 2001, and the team's marketing efforts sputtered. The best-selling Orioles player the past two years was Gibbons, but even his merchandise sold about eight times less than Ripken's at its peak, Eney said.

Little wonder Kevin Kenney, Aramark's resident district manager, called the Dec. 18 Tejada signing "an early Christmas present."

That was the first domino to fall. Tejada was the Orioles' biggest acquisition since they signed Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract in 1998.

"With Miguel, we get a true marquee superstar," said Spiro Alafassos, Orioles executive director of communications. "He's a potential MVP who is not only going to endear himself to fans with his smile and his personality, but with the fact that he's going to win games for us.

"He's going to hit game-winning home runs. He's going to carry the team."

Tejada, 27, is used to the adoration. When he won the MVP award, the president of his native Dominican Republic, Hipolito Mejia, invited him to the capital for a celebration. People lined the streets in Tejada's hometown of Bani just to cheer on the motorcade.

Developing national appeal

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