For just a Buck, Orioles fans buy hope

Makeover on field, in stadium brings optimism

April 04, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The phrase began turning in Larry Noto's mind at the end of last season, when the Orioles went on a tear under new manager Buck Showalter.

Noto a marketing executive, wanted to capture the excitement building among fellow fans after 13 largely hopeless seasons. So he made, and began selling, shirts with a dollar bill bearing Showalter's face and the slogan: "In Buck We Trust."

When Noto arrived at Camden Yards with his mother for the 2011 home opener Monday, he was pleasantly shocked to see a guy in his row wearing the shirt. "The energy out there is incredible," the Bel Air native said, as the sellout crowd roared at the first pitch. "We've walked into the season thinking we were losers for so many years, but that's what the end of last season said: That we could be winners again."

Monday, the team did win again, 5-1 over the Detroit Tigers, delighting a crowd of 46,593 on a day that hit record high temperatures.

The home opener is always a celebration of hope and renewal — even in a town that hasn't cheered a winning baseball team since 1997. But on Monday, Camden Yards felt a little newer and a little more hopeful than it has in many years.

For starters, the park itself received its most extensive offseason face-lift since opening in 1992. Along Eutaw Street, fans sat under orange umbrellas in a new courtyard, eating sandwiches purchased from nearby Boog's. On the club level in left field, they sipped beers at new tables shaped like home plate, with room to stretch their legs and mill about. They also sampled new foods such as Polock Johnny's sausages and crabmeat-stuffed eggrolls.

In the bowels of the stadium, the Orioles dressed for the game in a redesigned clubhouse, with a private dining area, a ping-pong table and fewer secluded corners.

Of course, the featured attraction was the team itself. After starting last season 2-16, the redesigned Orioles came into this year's home opener 3-0.

There was fresh-faced pitcher Zach Britton, who had won his first major-league start less than 24 hours earlier, deflecting jokes about whether he would strut down the orange carpet when introduced before the home opener.

There was cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero, who came in with more career home runs than all of the returning Orioles starters combined, blasting a ball off the second deck in left field during batting practice.

And there was Showalter, the manager who has everyone so excited. He played down the jubilation just a bit, because he has been around long enough to know that baseball is a long-haul game.

"That's what I keep challenging the players with about staying together, because they're really the only ones, and the staff, that understand the reality of what we're trying to do here, and the day-to-day grind it is," he said. "And you've got to stay focused on what reality is, instead of the ebb and flow of emotions that surround a team that's doing something that's very important to its fans."

Out in the stands, optimism ran a bit wilder, largely because of Showalter.

"It's all about Buck," said Scott Denisuk, who drove down from Glen Rock, Pa., for the opener. "Buck's building his own team. A lot of our past managers were just going through the motions. With Buck, if you don't play hard for him, he'll send you down the road."

Denisuk said the "worst case" for this year's team would be a .500 record and a third-place finish in the difficult American League East.

"It's just a new feel to the team," he said.

Nearby, in the new orange-capped courtyard behind the bleachers, James Mahla predicted similarly good things. "They've got some legit players," he said, pointing to Guerrero. "Not just filler."

Mahla, who came to the game from Delaware, was also impressed with the updates to the ballpark. "We have standing-room tickets, and it gives us a place to sit and eat our food," he said of the courtyard. "It's nice."

Orioles officials said the $20 million renovation was not designed to dovetail with an on-field renaissance. But they won't complain if that's how it turns out.

"It would be purely coincidental," said team spokesman Greg Bader. "But in a perfect world, yes, the two would mesh. You'd have a new feeling on-field and a new feeling off the field."

The 160 "bistro" and "drink-rail" seats in left field were filled by workers affiliated with the club. But they will be sold as regular tickets throughout the season.

"This is more than just a seat; it's really a place to enjoy yourself," said Dave Spencer, a Baltimore native who works for a contractor that helped with the renovations. "You've got the shade in your eyes and room to eat your food while you have a great view of the game."

Spencer plans to return to the bistro tables with his family later in the season, ideally to watch a team that remains in contention. "I think they made some real changes that they needed to make," he said.

One level higher, Noto sat in his "In Buck We Trust" shirt and pondered the possibility of the Orioles generating as much pride as the Ravens. He would not have had the same hope last year or the year before.

"This is the town of Ripken and Brooks," said Noto, who has sold 500 shirts in two weeks. "We just need to be reminded."

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