THE SUN'S annual Major League Baseball preview section appears in today's editions. It remains part of the annual rite of passage for many Orioles fans who can't wait for the regular season to begin.
But when thousands of spectators stream into Camden Yards tomorrow for the season opener against Oakland, many will feel a sense of trepidation - not only about the Orioles' chances in the powerful American League East, but also about the character of the team and the game of baseball itself.
It used to be that covering baseball mostly required a love and knowledge of the game and the ability to write a snappy game story on deadline. These days, however, knowledge of business, medicine and criminal law is increasingly important for baseball reporters.
As The Sun has been reporting for months, this has been a winter (and early spring) of discontent and anxiety for Orioles and baseball fans:
The Montreal Expos relocate to Washington and are christened the Washington Nationals.
For more than six months, Orioles owner Peter Angelos negotiates with Major League Baseball for franchise compensation for a potential revenue loss because of the Nationals. A tentative deal was reached Wednesday.
Orioles No. 1 starter Sidney Ponson spends 11 days in jail in his native Aruba during an investigation into his part in a Christmas Day beach fight. Ponson later reached a financial settlement with his accusers that led to the dismissal of assault charges against him.
The Orioles acquire slugging outfielder Sammy Sosa from the Chicago Cubs. Sportswriters in Chicago and Baltimore rip Sosa for his selfishness and diminishing skills.
Former slugger Jose Canseco's "tell all" book about the use of illegal steroids in baseball turns into a full-scale scandal. A congressional subcommittee asks several prominent players to testify at its March 17 hearing on steroid use. Orioles Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are joined by others, including retired slugger Mark McGwire. "Big Mac's" testimony, which sounds like a series of nondenial denials, is universally criticized.
The Orioles learn March 24 that Ponson was arrested Jan. 21 on a charge of driving under the influence in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The pitcher failed the field sobriety test and refused to take a Breathalyzer test. As a result, he surrendered his driver's license.
Orioles officials call Ponson's DUI a "black eye." Ponson assails the media for its reporting, saying that "off field is our private time."
The Sun reports that Orioles ticket sales are down by 12 percent from last year.
"It will be a relief to have some consistent game stories in the newspaper again," Deputy Sports Editor Steve Marcus said last week. "It seems like most of what we've been reporting on lately has not been about the game."
This has been noticed by readers. About John Eisenberg's column, "Sinking pitcher needs help," Monica Witt wrote: "Thanks for saying what needs to be said. I am a big fan of Sidney Ponson's and I wish I disagreed with you, but I can't. He needs help."
C. Philip Volk said: "As an avid baseball fan, it saddens me to read the daily comments made by Mr. Ponson concerning his recent troubles with the public and the media. Granted, sports professionals are entitled to their private lives, but they have to be aware they are in the public spotlight and are role models."
Don C. reacted to the article about the decline in O's ticket sales: "I'm not a poor, disgruntled fan. I can afford the tickets and the beer and food, regardless of the price. However, I won't spend one stinking dime again at a sport that won't police itself and preserve integrity for the American fan."
Sun columnist and longtime baseball writer Peter Schmuck tries to see the big picture. "I think the coverage of Ponson has been fair, though I think we have yet to focus on who is in his sphere of friends - who is part of the problem and who is part of a solution."
Schmuck worries about the insularity that could develop in the coverage of the Orioles and the Nationals. "I think the Washington newspapers seem to have adapted a much greater `Us vs. Them' mentality," he said.
It is worth noting, however, that The Washington Post will continue to cover the Orioles with a full-time beat writer. The Sun has committed to covering the Nationals at home and on the road for the first six weeks and then will reassess its plans.
Despite their problems, the Orioles are an integral part of Baltimore's identity. Camden Yards still is the model for stadium ambience. The "Oriole way," although somewhat diminished in recent years, is still synonymous with excellence and traditional baseball values.
Schmuck offers his expert analysis: "The team is flawed, but there is room for hope. The offensive lineup is improved. ... Sammy Sosa should provide some great moments. ... There is enough upside for fans to dream of a contending team, but anything more than a third-place finish would be a stretch of the imagination."
For some Orioles fans, that dream will be enough.
Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.