Fans give hope a chance

Baseball: The buzz among the faithful is that better times are finally near for the Orioles after several years of the downside.

April 04, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Pessimists don't go to tattoo parlors.

If you're looking for a sign that the Orioles have finally turned the corner toward baseball respectability, that the pox on the House of Angelos has passed, that it's OK to pull those orange foam fingers out of storage and dream big again, then check out Dan Teubner's leg.

On Friday, the 37-year-old bachelor and fan about town paid a visit to Full Color Coverage in Annapolis. He brought along a 1983-era Orioles hat and paid $105 to have a replica of that glory-days, cartoon-bird face tattooed onto the sweet spot of his calf muscle. Why?

"This is the first time in a good five or six years," says Teubner, "that we expect to finish over .500."

Orioles faithful have dazed but thankful expressions. Prayers have been answered. Clouds have lifted. The worst should be over.

Miguel Tejada has come to fill Cal's legend-size shoes at shortstop. Catcher Javy Lopez, fresh off a 43-home-run season, has abandoned the pennant-spoiled Atlanta Braves to squat behind the Orioles' humble home plate. Rafael Palmeiro, the prodigal first baseman, is back in the fold, that swing still so soft and so sweet it wouldn't raise a cloud of dust if he were beating carpets. And Sidney Ponson, the belovedly enigmatic pitcher, broke off that flirtation with the Giants and admitted that he wants to leave his heart in gritty Baltimore, not chi-chi San Francisco.

No wonder Dan Teubner is so revved up for Opening Night that he has had trouble sleeping. "It's like Christmas Eve. Everybody's super, ultra pumped."

Of course, everybody's not Dan Teubner. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. This was his second Orioles tattoo, and he insists he's not done yet; this is a man who attends about 100 games a year and offered his sister $500 if she'd name her baby boy "Cal Ripken." (Kathy opted for something more subtle: Camden.) But Teubner, who lives in Crofton, isn't the only person whose pulse is racing in anticipation.

Hot-selling shirts

Don Eney, general manager of the Orioles store at Camden Yards, says business is up 20 percent from a year ago. He has sold nearly 300 Miguel Tejada shirts. Previously, right fielder Jay Gibbons had been the most popular player with customers, but they only gobbled up about 600 of his shirts all last season. "There's definitely a revival going on," says Eney. "The Baltimore market is sports hungry."

Famished might be a better word, at least when it comes to Orioles fans. The past six years of baseball life were a sour experience, a bit like licking the foul line.

It started with kid-spectator Jeffrey Maier's grand-larceny catch at Yankee Stadium during the 1996 playoffs when he reached over the fence to pull a Yankee "home run" into the seats. Then came Orioles closer Armando Benitez's serving up of late-inning gopher balls to the Indians, as they rallied from behind to take the '97 playoffs. Then cleanup hitter Albert Belle's corked head and arthritic hip forced him into early retirement, the Orioles having to eat his contract (with the help of an insurance company) and pay him $13 million a year to stay home and play golf. Then came the mass trades of veteran players in August 2000, which memorably left departing outfielder B.J. Surhoff in tears.

It was a 10-foot sub sandwich of mediocrity that everybody had to swallow, the ultimate indignation coming when bearish outfielder/designated hitter Jack Cust fell down twice rounding the bases last summer.

"This general sepulchral feeling of stillness at the ballpark." That's how Terry Theise, 50, a wine importer and acknowledged baseball "purist" from Silver Spring, describes how it felt to watch the 2003 Orioles, the Bottoming-Out Birds.

Whole sections of empty seats. Concession stands closing early. No lines in the restrooms.

Theise knows the 2004 Orioles have a question-mark starting rotation and maybe some soft spots on the bench. And he couldn't be happier: "Frankly, I think the team has just enough weaknesses to make it pretty thrilling."

George Will, political commentator and longtime season ticket holder, likewise is a baseball realist. The revamped Orioles are partly responsible for the American League East now being one of the toughest divisions in baseball. A second-place finish would be "a stretch," says Will, but he likes those big bats added to the lineup: "The bottom half of every inning is going to be better than last year."

Seven years ago - during that glorious, but heartbreaking 1997 season - Nicole Dungee moved to Baltimore. She lives in Ridgely's Delight, across from Camden Yards. Dungee used to go to games about once a week. People would sit on their steps on a summer night and listen to announcer Jon Miller warbling on the radio.

Gradually, her neighbors stopped flipping on their radios. Dungee went to only five games last year. There was an energy brownout at nearby Pickles Pub. "You'd come here on a game night, and it would be empty," says Dungee, 30, a research analyst at the University of Maryland Medical School.

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