We've still got more than three weeks until pitchers and catchers report, but I got a real sense of excitement from buttoning up my gray jersey with "Baltimore" stitched across the chest and driving down I-95 to Russell Street. I parked at the stadium and cut through the Eutaw Street concourse. Just seeing the sights that had been missing from my life over the past five months - the Orioles Hall of Fame plaques, the towering right-center field scoreboard and video screen, the little baseball-sized plaques commemorating the home runs that have exceeded the reach of the right field flag court, and of course the carefully manicured field - gave me a jolt of adrenalin. The temperature may have been in the forties, but baseball was coming.
I walked across to the Convention Center at about 10:45 AM. I knew that I only had two hours to spare before hopping back in my car and driving to Annapolis to meet my girlfriend, so I wanted to be there when the doors opened to the public at 11. Fat chance. The line to get in wrapped around the entire perimeter of the building! I joked to myself that the Orioles have about 15,000 dedicated fans left...and they were all waiting in line with me. Later on, the O's PR staff would estimate that a total of 12,000-plus fans poured through the doors of the Convention Center throughout the day. I think that's pretty astounding, and it demonstrates both the dedication of Baltimore's faithful and the genuine enthusiasm over the early fruits of the rebuilding effort.
I made it inside at about 11:15, as the line moved quickly once the doors opened. I had primarily chosen to attend in hopes of collecting some autographs, but I was quickly disabused of that notion. Players, former players, and coaches signed in groups of three at four separate stations. Each group was announced an hour prior to their start time, and each line was cut off at 250 people. Do the math. I'd already missed the bus for the 11:00 signers, and lines were likely already forming for noon. So I wandered the floor before stopping at the Fan Forum, where a series of Q and A sessions with groups of Orioles personalities were ongoing throughout the day.
Here, my timing was actually fortuitous. Longtime Baltimore sportscaster Tom Davis was just beginning a session with the theme of "The Hitters", and he introduced new first baseman Garrett Atkins, my personal favorite player Brian Roberts, incumbent All-Star and Gold Glove center fielder Adam Jones, and cornerstone right fielder Nick Markakis. I met up with Camden Chat co-editor Stacey, and we snapped some photos (mine were taken with my crummy iPhone camera) and marveled at the hideous, bushy majesty of Markakis' black beard. Nick was sitting onstage next to Adam, who was wearing diamond earrings and a dark suit with a pink tie, and the contrast was greatly entertaining. (Nick was also wearing a camouflage baseball cap and sweatshirt and jeans, FYI.) One young woman begged him to shave the beard; to paraphrase her point, he's pretty and all, but that look ain't cutting it. He of course reminded her that with the team's strict anti-facial hair policy, he only gets to enjoy his wooliness for another month before it all goes away. There wasn't anything especially enlightening about the session (Brian doesn't know how he hits so many doubles, though it probably involves taking dumb risks; Adam hasn't had much luck selling his teammates on the benefits of Twitter; Garrett is looking forward to playing here; etc.), but it was great to see some of the team's best players interacting with the fans and showing a little personality...even if most of that personality was provided by Roberts and Jones.
With half an hour to kill until the next Fan Forum, we wandered the premises. There were booths set up for memorabilia dealers (which I shrewdly avoided - most of my money is going toward that house thing for the near future), local radio and TV stations, charitable foundations, and more. One booth had information and artifacts from the Negro Leagues. There were a couple of former players signing autographs, and regrettably I didn't stop to make a note of who they were. Nor did I play "Orioles Bingo" or "Family Feud", but I can't say I'm kicking myself over that. Somewhat amusingly, there was also a group of people in line to receive free O's memorabilia, which looked to be previous seasons' leftover giveaways such as George Sherrill and Gregg Zaun t-shirts. I spotted veteran Charm City sportscaster Keith Mills out in the open and introduced myself. He was very friendly, and showed off his uncanny knowledge of local prep sports - when I mentioned that he emceed one of my high school's pep rallies, he immediately spit out the name of my cross country coach. Stacey and I also scoped out the autograph stations, just to grab another peek at some of the players and snap some more photos. Here's a picture of former shortstop and new minor league offensive coordinator Mike Bordick (who looks the same as ever, just a bit grayer) and slugger Luke Scott (who may be a werewolf).At 11:15, we ventured back to the Fan Forum, where Orioles TV broadcaster and pregame host Jim Hunter was kicking off the segment featuring "The Rookies". By all accounts, this was the most heavily-attended session of the day, with an overflow crowd circling around the stage and seating area to get a glimpse of an impressive collection of five players, none older than 26: catcher Matt Wieters, left fielder Nolan Reimold, and pitchers Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman. While giving me hope for the future of the O's, this group also made me feel old. Bergesen talked about being in grade school the first time he watched new teammate Kevin Millwood pitch, and Matusz in particular looked like a baby-faced teenager. You could just sense the fan appreciation for the "new kids", from the youngster who asked the three pitchers where they were planning to display their Cy Young Awards to the middle-aged fan who spoke about growing up during the glory years of the Earl Weaver teams and tried to impress upon the young players the importance of that tradition to those that still root for the team after all of the frustrations of the past decade-plus. Naturally, most of the questions were for Wieters. Speaking of the heavily-hyped catcher, it was mentioned several times that he makes sure to give his batterymates an earful if they give up a hit after shaking off one of his pitch calls.
So that was the short and the (mostly) long of my abbreviated day at FanFest. If you were there, I hope you had a great time and maybe even got a few signatures. If you missed out, I'd recommend it in 2011. Now, on to Sarasota!