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Birds of a Feather
On an O's Theme Cruise, No Strikes, Just a Ball

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page E01

Eddie Murray, the Baltimore Orioles legendary first baseman and current bench coach, is sitting behind a banquet table with teammates Elrod Hendricks and Harold Baines, fielding questions from frisky interrogators. How, he's asked, will the Orioles' pitching fare this year? Will Albert Belle, the Birds' new free agent acquisition, produce this season? Why, questioners were (still) wondering, did Cal Ripken end his consecutive-games-played streak?

These question-and-answer sessions, known in industry parlance as news conferences, are normally limited to the media professionals who cover baseball and the athletes who play it. But this group of 80 consists solely of civilians, passengers on the 13th annual Baltimore Baseball Cruise--and the Q&A is taking place aboard Princess Cruises's Dawn Princess, in a top-deck lounge that sways 14 floors above the Caribbean Sea.

Each year, usually in January, the Orioles Cruise, one of the longest-running sports fan-oriented theme cruises--others feature players and fans from the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers--attracts a revolving roster of characters. The first component: five or six celebrities representing a mix of retired and active athletes who get a free cruise in exchange for participating in trivia games and pool Olympics and generally being chatty during dinner. Other guest stars on this year's seven-day Southern Caribbean cruise, which sailed out of San Juan and docked at ports in Aruba, Venezuela, Grenada, Dominica and St. Thomas, were Lee May, the Orioles' former first baseman, and Fred Manfra, one of the team's play-by-play announcers.

Then there are the 80 cruisers, most of whom, though not all, hail from the Baltimore-Washington area and who pay a $300 to $500 premium (on top of the regular cruise fare, which started at $1,300 per person) to hang out with ballplayers and like-minded sports fans. They vary widely in age (the oldest member of the group was 84, the youngest 3). Some are more interested in baseball than are others.

Ann Peters, who works for CBS Radio in Baltimore, rarely misses a game at Oriole Park. Gay Wise, a retired journalist, is not only a regular at the ballpark but is possibly the only passenger to have sailed on every Orioles voyage. She was also the group's fashion plate, donning a variety of mix-and-match orange-and-black outfits in deference to the team's colors. Conversely, Helen Tuttle of Chicago, back for a second year on the cruise because she enjoyed the camaraderie on the first go-round, wouldn't recognize a Baltimore ballplayer if she fell over one.

A confession: I'm not much of a baseball fan either, at least not these days. I'm a reformed fanatic, daughter of a retired Orioles front office man, a fan who is better versed in Orioles past than present. I came of age during the era when heroes like Brooks and Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and a rookie named Eddie Murray ruled the O's, when star athletes still earned less than the GNP of Ghana, and when a callow Cal Ripken hadn't even started The Streak. These days, I'm so out of touch that when I heard Baines was one of the players who'd be on this year's cruise, I leaned over and whispered to a colleague, "Who's Harold Baines?"

So why go? Cruising with a group that's bound by a common interest, whether it's Elvis or jazz or Harley-Davidsons or baseball, is, in today's era of 2,000-plus passenger mega-liners, one way to personalize the experience. On previous cruises, I pretty much stuck with the people I was traveling with--or dining with, which left me feeling somewhat isolated. On this one, I came into contact with just about every one of the 80 in our group out of the ship's 1,998 capacity, at various arenas.

We dined together, in an exclusive nook in one of the Dawn Princess's 550-passenger dining rooms (one neat feature of the Orioles cruise is you rotate tables, so everyone gets to sit with a player at least a couple of nights). I was always running into fellow group members at regular venues--lounging on the promenade deck, bidding for art at the ship's daily auction, lunching at the Horizon Court buffet, walking around Dominica's capital of Roseau during a port stop.

But what really made this cruise different were the private events, organized just for the group. These included beach volleyball in Aruba, a private catamaran charter for a "booze cruise" on a two-level boat in Grenada, complete with all-you-can-drink rum and a steel band, and a group shore excursion to Caracas. At opening and closing night pre-dinner drink parties cruisers were awarded prizes (a pair of black socks with the insignia of an ornithologically correct oriole!), everybody was given a tote bag and baseball, and players, at several intervals, were available for autographs and photo opportunities.

Just as fun were the less formal gatherings--running into a couple of fellow groupies in the La Scala pizzeria for an ad-hoc late lunch, meeting for cocktails before dinner in the Wheelhouse Bar, and late-night dancing--some of our gang hung out till the disco closed at 4 a.m.

It may have been baseball that brought most of us here, but ultimately the real enjoyment came in connecting with players and broadcasters and ordinary people on other topics. Lee May and his wife, Terry, turned me on to the best place to buy saffron in Grenada; Eddie Murray slammed a spike my way during a volleyball tournament in Aruba; Fred Manfra, a news junkie, spent a lot of time in the ship's business center surfing the Internet for the latest developments in sports trades (and regular Baltimore weather reports). For obvious reasons--not wanting to reveal my ignorance about today's team--my conversations with Harold Baines, a resident of St. Michaels, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, revolved not around baseball but around the area's best restaurants.

For most participants, though, the obvious appeal is the chance to get up close and personal with baseball stars you'd probably otherwise never get any closer to than when reaching for autographs during a ballgame.

"The line between the player and fan is blurred," says Ann Peters, who's already signed up for next year's O's voyage (her seventh). "Now, when I'm walking around the stadium during the season, Harold will wave to me and Elrod's pointing me out. It makes you realize we're not just fans to them. They know us as people."

That kind of relationship doesn't just happen--it's orchestrated. Each day there's a special, group-only event. Some are pretty straightforward. But it's the baseball-oriented party games--the kind of stuff you think you'd never be silly enough to participate in--that provide the laughs and the bonding.

At "Jeopbirdie!," host Manfra provides the answers, and four teams, each captained by a player, try to offer correct questions. All are related to baseball trivia, and some are easy: In the category of Baltimore and baseball flicks, Manfra doesn't even finish giving the question ("Though set in Cleveland . . .") before someone screams "Major League." The funniest moments occurred when questions involved the players on hand. Manfra had barely gotten through the answer "His home run in the 25th inning . . ." when Baines stood up, thrust his chest out in Tarzan fashion and shouted, "Me." Another--"Two brothers were both rookies of the year"--was so tough that even May (who shared the designation with his brother Carlos in 1974) missed it. At least Murray knew the question to Manfra's soft pitch--"He hit more than 500 home runs for the Orioles"--but Hendricks got his hand up first and won the point.

The most important factor in this kind of cruise is the chemistry among the celebrity athletes because, well, if they're having a good time, you're having a good time. While the idea of sailing with baseball players is what usually sells first-timers on taking the Orioles cruise, what keeps them coming back has less do with baseball than with a camaraderie that, one cruiser says, makes you feel like you're a member of a private club.

Finding the right mix of ballplayers, year after year, is always a gamble, says Ken Nigro, one of the cruise organizers. He looks for athletes with star power and name recognition. Veterans who can tell colorful stories at dinner are valued. Those who have the "it" quality--a mix of showmanship, sense of fun and sociability, regardless of stature (or lack thereof)--are always welcome. Says Rudy Kastelic of K & M Productions in Garfield Heights, Ohio, who organizes a similar cruise for the Cleveland Indians: "You can't have a person like Albert Belle, who gets in his moods and gets upset with people." Players who have been big hits on the Baltimore Baseball Cruise over the past 13 years include Brady Anderson, Chris Hoiles, Billy Ripken, Arthur Rhodes, Brooks Robinson, Mike Devereaux and Earl Weaver. Former first baseman Sam Horn achieved legendary status one year when he strutted on stage during a passenger talent show clad only in a towel. Anderson, who has taken three Orioles cruises, is responsible for attracting a lot of the younger (i.e., under 50) cruisers; says Nigro, he "attracted a lot of women those years." What a bummer, then, for the group's female contingent that on one trip, Anderson had a shipboard romance with a cruise staffer, according to cruise organizers. Memorable for quite another reason was John Lowenstein, a one-time Orioles outfielder turned broadcaster, who on embarkation decided he hated his cabin and bagged the cruise entirely. He wasn't asked back.

The Orioles cruise is a little unusual as far as themed voyages go. More common are the ship-wide variety, in which cruise lines (or independent organizers) plan events that are open to all passengers--most are included in the cost of your cruise. Some are educational--on Silverseas' Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Series, for instance, you not only get the usual cooking demonstrations but also accompany chefs to food markets in Bali and Casablanca. Others feature celebrity appearances: On Norwegian Cruise Lines's annual "oldies" voyage, entertainers from the 1950s and '60s such as Lesley Gore, the Marvelettes and the Platters perform, sign autographs and answer questions. On Celebrity's Mercury, the highlight of a mah-jongg cruise is a pretty competitive tournament.

You can find some funky topics. On Holland America's Westerdam this year, one sailing is designed for bingo enthusiasts (round-the-clock games are a staple). On Cunard's Vistafjord, you can immerse yourself in Viennese cuisine for a week. Delta Queen offers Mark Twain and Dixieland jazz. Radisson Diamond is offering a handful of cruises dedicated to classical music. On transatlantic voyages, Cunard's QE2 is showcasing British television and classic cinema. Many lines offer sailings featuring big band and jazz, both traditional and Dixieland.

Norwegian Cruise Lines, which also offers themed voyages on such topics as health and fitness, is best known for its sports cruises. The pinnacle of "Sports Afloat," voyages spotlighting athletes from football, hockey, basketball and baseball, is December's Sports Illustrated event.

For much of the cruise, the other 1,918 passengers on the Dawn Princess were largely unaware that pro athletes and Orioles fans were in their midst. Which is not to say the guys were hibernating: Elrod Hendricks had his own reserved seat at the disco bar (marked by a barrel-size can of Sapporo beer). Eddie Murray hung around an art auction (though I didn't see him buy anything). Lee May could often be found poolside, drinking a pina colada and looking content. By the end of the cruise, however, word had leaked out, and enterprising fans seized the moment, looking for the same kind of personal experience we'd been indulging in all week.

The last night, Harold Baines was accosted as he left the dining room. "Harold!" shrieked a strange guy, stopping the Orioles designated hitter in front of the gift shop. "I'm a Detroit Tigers fan. What's your batting average against Detroit?"

I was standing behind Baines, and while I still don't know much about his playing career, I'd spent a week traveling with him, figuring out that he's one of the most down-to-earth, self-effacing "celebrities" I've met. A kind and gentle soul, Baines, a .290 lifetime hitter, seemed astonished by the outburst. He had no figure handy. But he shook the fan's hand and began chatting about baseball trivia, his eyes coming alive as he talked about the sport--because, ultimately, players are the biggest fans of the game they play. His wife, Marla, who's heard all this before and wanted to do anything but talk baseball this night--the last of the voyage--tugged him away, gently but persistently.

Next year, Baltimore Orioles fans can choose from two cruises. The Cruise Lady (1-800-945-7462), a Baltimore travel agency, is offering "The Year 2000: Baltimore Baseball Cruise," which takes place Jan. 9-16, departing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Grand Princess. Ports include St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays, the cruise line's private island. Fares start at $1,683 per person double, which includes air. Add $117 for port tax. Players signed up include Arthur Rhodes, Elrod Hendricks, Lee May and Ryan Minor. Baseball Fantasy Camps and Sports Tours Inc. (1-800-336-2267) is offering a sailing on the Norwegian Wind, Jan. 8-15, which travels from Miami to Cozumel, Cancun, Grand Cayman and Key West. Prices start at $999 per person double, including air; add $123 for port tax. Already signed are Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver and former first baseman Boog Powell; additional players will be announced.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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