A brand-new day for O's - for now

April 08, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

There were so many people jumping on the Orioles bandwagon that I knew I had to move fast, before the thing filled up and lumbered down Pratt Street without me.

So I went out to Camden Yards the other day to see this new and improved team - the team everyone in town is talking about. I did this mainly so that if the O's got off to a good start, I could say: "Listen, I've been behind these guys from the beginning. They're something special, let me tell you."

Of course, if they tank and appear headed for another fourth-place finish, I'll drop them in a heartbeat and tell everyone: "Forget those guys. They'll never win until they do something about the pitching."

This is the mark of the veteran bandwagon-hopper. You gotta know when to jump off, preferably before the wheels come off the cart.

Anyway, I sat in Section 62, down the third-base line, and the new-look Orioles signaled their immense appreciation for my appearance on their bandwagon by promptly losing to the Red Sox, 4-1.

One thing you'll notice right away at the ballpark this season: lots of salsa music over the sound system.

This is an obvious homage to the new Hispanic superstars the O's signed in the off-season: shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, the Viagra pitchman back for his second stint with the team.

Still, as the Birds' PR whiz, Bill Stetka, points out: "Everyone looks at these three guys and thinks we suddenly turned Latin this year. But we had the second-highest number of foreign-born players on Opening Day last year, behind Montreal."

Stetka then rattled off names from last year's roster: Melvin Mora, Sidney Ponson, Tony Batista, Omar Daal, Jorge Julio, Rodrigo Lopez, Geronimo Gil, Deivi Cruz, Willis Roberts.

He was right: It didn't exactly sound like the membership roll from, say, the Elks Club of Rapid City, S.D.

Some of those players are gone, to which Oriole fans would say good riddance, at least in the case of Batista, a certified head case and a butcher at third base, with a batting stance - arms held high over the plate, torso pointed toward Russell Street - that seemed to come via Mars.

But a lot of those players are still here. And with Tejada, Javy Lopez and Palmeiro joining them, plus Luis Matos playing his first full season, the Orioles are suddenly the home office for Hispanic ballplayers - a fact the team should capitalize on.

Look, forget those lame promotions where the Orioles give away ugly orange porkpie hats and beach towels and plastic coolers.

How about Guayabera Night, with the first 10,000 fans through the gates getting one of the handsome, loose-fitting shirts favored by many in warm-weather climes?

Or Arroz Con Pollo Night, with all fans receiving a complimentary helping of the zesty chicken and rice dish - a nice change of pace from your Esskay hot dog?

In fact, let's run with this whole Latin theme: Spanish sing-alongs led by the Oriole Bird, geography brainteasers about Central America on the Jumbotron, English translations in the game program of the words to "Mi Banderas," which the O's play when Matos comes to the plate, or "Yaleo," played when Jorge Julio enters as the closer.

Unfortunately, while the increased Latin flavor is a neat, new twist at Camden Yards, one thing about the ballpark hasn't changed: It seemed as if the place was half-filled with Red Sox fans.

Even without their Boston caps and Curt Schilling jerseys, you could tell they were Red Sox fans by their pale, dissipated bodies and the haunted look in their eyes.

Let's face it: Who knows more about heartbreak than Red Sox fans?

Their team is cursed, and they know it. And it will always be cursed, and they know that, too.

Last year, remember, they were five outs from winning the American League pennant from the evil Yankees. Five outs!

But manager Grady Little left starter Pedro Martinez in the game too long and Martinez turned into a human oil-well fire, and the Red Sox's season went up in flames again.

Grady Little was fired about five seconds into the off-season and now works at a Bonanza steak house in New Hampshire - or at least that's where he should be working.

And Red Sox fans spent another long New England winter bemoaning their fate and drinking heavily, as they have seemingly done since the advent of baseball.

It's a wonder, therefore, that they can even drag themselves out of bed in the morning, never mind make travel arrangements to Camden Yards and go there to root for their team.

But they sure were there, all right. And they were loud, sucking down their 20-ounce Budweisers and bellowing "Go Sawks" into the chilly spring air and venting all the frustration that had roiled in their guts since last October.

Here's another thing about these Red Sox fans. Three o'clock game on a weekday afternoon - don't any of these people have jobs?

How is it that so many of them get to blow off work and swill beer and watch a ballgame in the middle of the week?

Where can I get a gig like that?

Not that it matters right now. In fact, all that matters now is that I'm officially on the Orioles bandwagon - well, as I said, at least until the wheels start coming off.

That's why the great ones always sit near the exit sign.

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