Orioles have chance to capture new generation of fans

January 30, 2011|By Kevin Cowherd

Let's begin with the obvious: There was enough optimism at FanFest to make even the most jaded fan pull out his cell phone and order plane tickets to Sarasota.

Give the Orioles credit: They sure can put on a baseball festival.

And give Orioles fans credit, too. More than 10,000 of them turned out at the Convention Center on a frozen January weekend, cheerfully enduring the traffic and parking problems caused by the big snowstorm three days earlier. (Me, I think I ended up parking somewhere in Glen Burnie.)

If you were looking for the star of FanFest, he wasn't hard to spot.

It wasn't Brian Roberts or Nick Markakis or Adam Jones. It wasn't any of the new guys: Mark Reynolds or J.J. Hardy or Derrek Lee. And it wasn't free agent slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who, now that the team is pursuing him, is being talked about by O's fans like he's Babe Ruth.

No, the biggest star of FanFest was Buck Showalter, who is now considered a savior around here for guiding the O's to that nifty 34-23 finish after the Start From Hell last season.

My favorite moment came during the afternoon fan forum with Showalter and Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail.

With an overflow audience looking on with rapt attention, Showalter was asked about playing in the tough AL East.

The question went something like this: Did he ever find it discouraging going up against all these rich, powerful teams that re-stock their rosters with superstars every year.

For an instant, Showalter wore a pained expression, like his acid-reflux was acting up.

"I really don't want to hear about the Yankees and Red Sox and what they spent," he growled. "We'll worry about us."

This was greeted with thunderous applause. You would have thought Showalter had just pulled an Oprah and given everyone in the audience a new car.

A moment or two later, a middle-aged man stood and emotionally thanked Showalter for "picking Baltimore" to resume his managerial career.

It was as if Showalter had been sentenced to the baseball equivalent of Devil's Island.

"Hey," I wanted to shout," give me the multi-million dollar contract, the first-class travel accommodations, the chance to work in the Taj Mahal of ballparks night after night. Don't worry about ol' Buckaroo. He'll be cackling to himself every time he goes to the bank."

What was really great about FanFest was seeing all the kids who swarmed the place, accompanied by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Let's face it: after 13 straight losing seasons, the Orioles have lost a generation of young fans, the 20-somethings who have moved on to other interests.

I have two in my family. They're both huge Ravens fans. Mention the Orioles and it's like you slipped them Dramamine. They start reaching for a pillow.

So the O's better not lose this next generation of young fans. And the only way to do that is to field an exciting team that can at least hold its own in the division.

Maybe they can do it this year. That dramatic turn-around under Showalter last August has at least given the fans hope.

It's given the players hope, too. You could see it in the face of Roberts, the veteran second baseman who means so much to this team.

"I don't think you lose the fact that we played really good baseball, the fans are excited, the city is excited and other teams are taking notice that the Orioles played really solid for two and a half months," he said.

"This is the first time in my nine years that we've had this momentum going into spring training," he continued. "Usually it's been [the season ending on] a down note and the offseason has been half-hearted optimism. But I think this year, people can look and say: 'Wow, maybe they are building something.'"

Maybe. We'll find out in the next few months.

But it was nice to see Roberts smiling and having a good time this weekend.

He said he's finally healthy after the back problems that sidelined him for so long last season. And he said he was also over the concussion he suffered when he flipped out and whacked his bat against his batting helmet after striking out late last year.

(By the way, if the NFL ever tries to minimize the lasting effect of concussions again, somebody should bring up Roberts. He said his symptoms — blurred vision, dizziness, etc. — didn't fully disappear until Christmas.)

But Roberts wasn't the only one smiling at FanFest. So were a lot of the other Orioles. So was the manager. And so were many of the fans, who want desperately to believe this team is different from the last 13 before it.

I hope they're right. They sure deserve it.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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