Fans feel thrill through opener's chill

Starting off season in prime time makes cold weather bearable

April 05, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It has long been a truism among baseball fans that the best thing about Opening Day being played on a weekday afternoon is that it offers a perfectly good excuse to skip work. Last night, thousands of frigid fans discovered the true reason for the traditional daytime setting: It's hard to celebrate the arrival of summer's game when you can't feel your toes.

Cold and windy as it was, though, fans tried their best to warm themselves with the consolation that they were enduring a first-ever Opening Night for a good reason - a nationally broadcast, prime-time spectacle that, leaving aside two Tokyo games last week, marked Major League Baseball's official 2004 start.

"I'm excited about the fact that it's the opening of the league, here in Baltimore," said Rick Kelly, 39, a computer network designer from Columbia. "But I do think it's pretty cold."

Kelly's approach for dealing with the 43-degree chill was simple: "I just decided that I was going to a Ravens game and dressed accordingly." This meant wearing a ski mask, long underwear and "wool everywhere."

Indeed, one might have mistaken the fans swarming toward Camden Yards for a November football crowd, with plenty of purple Ravens parkas and watch caps mixed in with Orioles orange. Even the Hooters girls mingling with the pre-game crowd outside Pickles Pub were bundled up, dressed in orange jumpsuits rather than their usual skimpier getups.

"I dressed warmer for this game than for any Ravens game last year," said Joan Balog, a football season-ticket holder from Parkville. The numbers backed her up: it was 20 degrees warmer during the Ravens' playoff game against Tennessee in January than last night.

Warming fans more than all their blankets and mittens, though, were their high hopes and expectations for an Orioles team that has given little reason to cheer in the past six years. The excitement at recent opening days may have had a somewhat dutiful and rote feel to it, but there was a bona fide buzz in the air last night, with fans daring to confess playoff hopes without apology.

Jody Weldon, a 37-year-old teacher, said he bought season tickets for the first time this year because of the team's improved prospects. Reasons for optimism that he and other fans gave included the arrival of a new manager in Lee Mazzilli and three new sluggers in the middle of the order: All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro.

"I'm excited about it. I think these Orioles are going to surprise," said Weldon, who grew up an Orioles fan in Louisiana and moved to Baltimore four years ago partly for the team's sake.

Orioles fans were not, of course, the only ones carrying high expectations into the park. As is the case whenever Boston comes to town, the representatives of Red Sox Nation were out in force, hoping to see their team start its rebound from its crushing playoff loss last fall.

Boston fan Ted Terapeni, 37, came from York, Pa., to meet friends who had traveled from as far as Massachusetts for the game. "This is the year. That's why I'm here. I had to be there for the first game of the year and the last one," he said.

Less in evidence were young fans, who are often out in numbers for Opening Day but who may have been kept home last night by the cold and late game start. There were exceptions: Rebecca Acra, of Bel Air, arrived with her 7-year-old son, Jacob, though she was feeling a little guilty about it. "It should've been during the day," she said.

Other fans agreed there were downsides to the Sunday night setting.

"I'd rather have it during the day. You're sitting there in the sun, you call in sick and everyone knows where you are. That's the allure of Opening Day," said Dave Kennedy, a 32-year-old from Pasadena drinking beer with his friends outside Pickles before the game.

But, he added, he wouldn't be letting the unusual timing of the game deprive him of the traditional Opening Day perk. "After sitting in the beer garden all afternoon, you have to take the next day off," he said. "There's no way in heck I'm going in tomorrow."

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