Loyal O's fans bask in team's glow

More sunny days ahead for faithful

April 21, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Maybe it was the glorious day, that bounty of sunshine pouring down on a pristine, tulip-trimmed Camden Yards. Maybe it was the scent of beef and hot dogs wafting from grills up and down Eutaw Street. Or maybe it was just that most beautiful part of the morning paper, the American League standings that showed the Orioles in their still unaccustomed perch atop the East Division.

Small wonder, then, that hundreds of fans showed up hours early for the first extended homestand of the season, bringing with them an optimism that few in the ballpark have felt over the past few seasons.

For C.J. Mahaney, a trip to Oriole Park is something of a religious experience. But then, for him, most things are. The pastor from Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, positively beachlike in khaki shorts and In-N-Out Burger T-shirt, was less motivated by the O's nascent success than the eternal lure of the sport.

"We're fans of our teams no matter how they do," he said. "Of course, we're grateful for the hope we've gotten from Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. But it's a wonderful day, the ballpark is resplendent, and this is just a great way to make memories with my son."

Ballglove on his hand, Chad then led his dad to their seats in the leftfield corner, where he knew he was less than likely to snare a flyball in batting practice but still hoped somebody would launch one his way. "You never know," said C.J. as the pair went through the gates.

Inside the park, there were similarly high hopes. Near the first-base railing, Dan Sharpe, 11, already had snagged signatures from two heroes: Tim Raines Jr., and Melvin Mora. Dan, his sister, Destiny, 8, and his stepdad Allen Dent, all of Fredericksburg, Va., at Camden Yards for the first time, had arrived at 3 p.m. for the 7 p.m. game. It's worth it when the team seems - seems, mind you - to be on the right track.

"I think it's going to last, said Dent. "They finally added some good people."

Twenty rows up, faces reddening in the afternoon sun, friends Matt Wycoff of Washington and John Bayse of Fairfax, Va., were scoping out the hitting styles of the players. "We're into fantasy baseball," said Bayse, a National Guard officer and senior at George Mason University. "I like the way we're hitting. We're going to hit this year. I'm just not sure the pitching staff is strong enough to keep us there all year."

Still, the two bought these seats for all 10 games on the homestand. Wycoff, a systems engineer, fingered the ballglove in his lap as he eyed the hitters in the cage taking their swings.

"We'll be here for the whole homestand," said Wycoff. "That is, unless he leans over and catches a ball before I do. This will be fun, for sure. But there are limits to friendship."

In the right-field flag court, Ed Gress' hope also sprang eternal. The Dundalk landscaper has made an art of snagging home runs hit during batting practice and games, as he has done since Camden Yards opened. He stands far to the back, behind the less experienced ballhawks, and listens for the distant crack of bat on ball.

"It's better to move in on a flyball than have to move back," he said, pounding a well-worn Rawlings mitt. "Maybe that's why I've caught about 1,200 of the things."

His attitude reflected aptly the mood of the gathering crowd. When he comes to the games, he never knows how many balls, if any, will be slugged his way. But the man in the Brady Anderson T-shirt keeps watching the skies. "I'm always sure I'll catch something," he said. "As long as you hold your position, it'll work out. You've got to be patient."

O's fans can only hope their patience pays off as well as this. Gress' ears pricked up. A ball sailed over the wall. He strode forward, raised his left arm, and speared it cleanly.

"Gonna be a good year," he said.

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