Orioles stoke their Washington fan base

Whether coincidental or not, timing of FanFest strikes varied responses

Baseball

August 19, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In baseball, timing is everything. Yesterday, the Orioles picked - by accident, they say - a most opportune time to take over Farragut Square in downtown Washington.

On the occasion of its annual D.C. Summer FanFest, the team lured fans with free food, music and appearances by recently acquired stars Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro. In all, the team made more than two dozen players, coaches, front office executives and broadcasters available to chat or sign autographs - nearly everyone associated with the team, including the bird mascot.

It's almost as if the Orioles were squatters trying to stake a claim to Washington. Which, in a sense, they were.

What most everyone from the Orioles knew yesterday is that Major League Baseball owners are meeting in Philadelphia this week to discuss, among other topics, whether to move the Montreal Expos to the Washington area or somewhere else. Orioles owner Peter Angelos says the D.C. market is part of his team's territory, and that the region can't support two teams.

What better way for the Orioles to highlight that sentiment than by holding a pep rally with hot dogs, soda and ice cream deep in what might be construed - at least by Washingtonians angry at Angelos for his stance - as enemy territory?

"This reinforces today that Washington is a great asset for the Orioles," said Mike Flanagan, the club's vice president of baseball operations. "We're always reminded of that when we come here."

The Orioles, who sell tickets and team merchandise at a store on the square, have staged similar D.C. fan events for years. But this one was different.

Many of those attending - and even more, the media covering the festivities - were consumed with whether Washington rightly belongs to a team 40 miles up the road.

To a fan who hung a banner from a nearby building, the answer was clearly "no." The sign advised those in attendance not to accept free hot dogs from a franchise whose owner could jeopardize Washington's chances for its own team. Despite the entreaty, the food line often snaked for half a block.

"This is probably the greatest turnout we've ever had," Flanagan said. While official crowd estimates were unavailable, team officials said they planned for 5,000 people to attend the three-hour, lunchtime shindig and were not disappointed.

A similar event four years ago drew about 2,000 people.

The Orioles, whose game-day visit came on the third day of a series against Oakland, provided almost every player but the starting pitcher. People waited 30 minutes or longer for autographs.

One fan paraded among the multitude of autograph seekers with a handmade sign repeating Angelos' oft-quoted statement that there are no "real" baseball fans in Washington.

"If Angelos thinks there are no baseball fans in Washington, then why is he having a FanFest here?" asked Ron Myers, a retired federal government worker from suburban Germantown. Myers said he is an Orioles season-ticket holder and plans to keep his tickets whether or not Washington gets a team. He said he'd probably check out the new club's games for fun.

Before yesterday's event, some Washington and Virginia fans had chatted on Internet sites about demonstrating against the FanFest. "Should we attempt to do an organized protest?" asked one participant on Ballpark- Guys.com. "Even if there were just 10 of us holding up signs saying `Orioles are not the home team, move the Expos to DC/VA.' "

Some Washington newspaper columnists had questioned whether city residents might be "saps" or "suckers" for planning to attend the activities.

But Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said attendance was good and that no organized protest ever materialized. Instead, fans streamed into the square, attracted by music, prizes, batting and pitching cages, junk food and ballplayers.

A female fan asked Lopez, who was fielding questions from a stage, if she could hug him. Lopez complied.

Tejada told a cluster of Orioles supporters: "I didn't know I had so many fans here."

The only time any Oriole seemed momentarily uncomfortable was when he was asked whether Washington should get a team.

"It would be great for baseball, but it would be bad for the Orioles," Lopez said after pausing to consider the question.

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