IT WAS A LONG, LONG wait, but spring is really here: The Birds are flying back to Baltimore. And starting Monday, eager Orioles fans like Joe Yuhas can trade in their daydreams for the real thing.
"In the middle of winter, I'll picture the infield as it is from Section 35 where I usually sit in the upper deck, watching the players warming up, tossing the ball around," says Yuhas, reflecting on the scene at Memorial Stadium. Then he'll close his eyes, imagine the mounting chant of "Ed-DEE, Ed-DEE" as the crowd exhorts Eddie Murray at the bat, and remember those moments in summertime when "the sun sets just over the left-field corner. With a red sunset contrasting the lights of the stadium, the whole sky looks purple."
Yuhas, a Postal Service worker from Takoma Park, grew up in northern New Jersey, Yankees country, but luckily his mom put him on the true path -- to Orioles fandom. And now he calls himself the "Jive From 35," leading his own group of friends in cheers in Section 35, next door to 34, the section made famous by Baltimore cabbie Wild Bill Hagy.
He even gets excited about the Orioles' emblem, the smiling bird perched on every player's hat. "If you're going to raise kids, what more happy thing to rally around than that bird," he says. "You go to a game and you start acting like that bird, smiling . . . whether the team wins or loses."
And now, with the season at hand, he's itching to cash in again on one of his richest discoveries: "To avoid stadium traffic we just started hanging out at the parking lot. Mostly young kids would chase the players for their autographs, and the players would stop. I found that I was enjoying it a lot myself, way too much for some of my friends," who wanted to start the drive home.
They kept asking him: "What do you want to do that for? You're not a kid."
Well, maybe not, but it gives Yuhas, who attends about 35 games a year, a chance to chat one-on-one with the players and ask them about their injuries, which, he says, they love to discuss. In fact, he says, "Watching them come out is sometimes better than the game."
For the serious Orioles fan, the ultimate dream may be to spend a week as a Bird, with a uniform, a locker, coaches, trainers and competition. Wayne Glass of Bethesda, a defense analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, had his dream come true when his wife and two daughters bought him a ticket to Orioles Dream Week for his 40th birthday last September.
"Their private "send this kid to camp" drive sent him to fantasy land for seven days of "spring training" in Florida. Says Glass, "It was a fabulous experience, a really happy time." Even after a pulled hamstring on the second day, he adds, "You really got a sense of what a ball player must feel like." (For anyone interested in Dream Week, by the way, call 301/243-9800 or write Ken Nigro, Baltimore Orioles, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, MD 21218, and stash away $2,800.)
Glass attends about 20 home games a season, and once again he's going to get a running start: For the fourth straight year, he and his wife are taking the girls out of school for Opening Day. "I've already notified the school that my girls will have fever that day," he says.
Chances are that they'll also give in to that other fever and hang around in the parking lot after the last inning. Glass has a collection of 10,000 baseball cards. Out of those, about 1,500 are Oriole cards, some of which he gives to his wife and daughters, ages 11 and 14, marshaling them to cover the prime locations in the autograph hunt.
All the autographs go into an album of Orioles memorabilia that he'll pass on to his daughters and their children: "It's something they can say their crazy father, or grandfather, put together."
Why do the Orioles inspire such devotion? The broadcasters who cover them throughout the season offer a couple explanations: More than two decades of winning baseball, a sense of family on the team.
"Players want to come to Baltimore, for the Orioles organization, the winning tradition," says Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman who played 22 years with the Orioles and now works as a commentator on telecasts of their games. "It's a good team, a nice city."
His TV partner, Chuck Thompson, qualifies as both an observer of the tradition and a fan. He arrived in Baltimore in 1949 and hasn't cared to work anywhere else since. "I work 45 days a year watching one of the best teams in baseball," he says, "and I get paid for it."
He guesses that maybe the fans see how well the team blends. In building the franchise, he says, "the managers look at the abilities of the player involved, and if he will fit in as an Oriole player."
Jon Miller, beginning his fourth year as the "voice of the Orioles" on their radio network, offers a different perspective, having broadcast Boston Red Sox games before coming to Baltimore. He thinks some comparisons help explain the Orioles' hold.
Boston hasn't won a World Series since 1918 (the Orioles' latest was in 1983), so the Red Sox fans are "a little more cynical, a little more difficult to please -- they look at the team as an entity which they love but will always disappoint them. The grip, the magic of the Orioles fans is probably that the ball club wins; over the years they just don't disappoint."
And after a game at Memorial Stadium, "the parking lot is wide open . . . for people to catch a glimpse of an Oriole player coming out," says Miller. "In Boston, the players' parking lot is fenced in, nestled in against the stadium." The players get valet parking but there's no access for fans.
Baltimore fans see the team as a family, explains Miller.
When players Floyd Rayford and Mike Young first came to town, they stayed at star Eddie Murray's house, Miller points out. And today shortstop Cal Ripken and Murray "are leading the way Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson did 20 years ago, doing relays and cut-offs as if it were the most fun they'd ever had."
As familiar as the broadcasters are with the players and their fans, they can't match the view of Dick and Rick Minnick, the father and son team that runs Academy Cleaners, launderers to the Orioles.
After most every game, they wheel their laundry cart past supplicants longing to get their hands on Ripken's or Murray's dirty uniform. "Sometimes I throw a plastic bag over the uniforms, but the fans know what I've got," says Rick Minnick.
Rick remembers in particular one girl, about 18 years old, who fell to her knees, begging for Ripken's uniform. "She was pretty, too, but I couldn't give it to her," he says. "She kept crying and said, 'I'll pay you anything for it.' " But Rick held his ground and the uniform.
The Minnicks understand; they're fans themselves. While they can't keep uniforms (those belong to the American League), they do have a pile of players' name strips and numbers removed from the uniforms, hats from around the league (including the original Baltimore Old English "O" cap), key chains, players' gloves, and many bats and balls for their own collection of memorabilia.
Rick picks up the warm-up suits after the game starts, and Dick picks up the uniforms. That way the first load is practically cleaned by the time the uniforms arrive. Neighborhood residents often stop by the shop on York Road, north of the stadium, to look at the uniforms through the shop window. On occasion, Dick and Rick let in some visitors -- particularly the youngsters -- for a closer look at the uniforms. And then, says Rick, the fans "just want to touch them . . . They touch them like they're sacred." CATCH A PASSING STAR
Before the game begins, a popular fan hang-out is the edge of the lower box seats where the players are in good listening range. Since most of their warm-up is spent concentrating on the game, players may not be too responsive to autograph requests. Your best bet is to hold off until later.
To talk to your favorite Orioles players and watch them come out after the showers, set up shop in the public parking lot to the left of the stadium's front gate. Wait by exit W-2, designating Sections 3 to 5; it's right next to the advance ticket sales window.
The front gate located under the "Memorial Stadium" letters is the best place to catch Earl Weaver, Elrod Hendricks and trainer Ralph Salvon. To see broadcasters Brooks Robinson, Chuck Thompson, Jon Miller and Rex Barney (of Home Team Sports), stake out the press box door on the third level of Memorial Stadium, at Section 39, or wait by the front gate.
For bidding adieu to the opposing team's players as they board their bus, wait at exit E-2, designating Sections 38 to 40, just right of the front gate.
Here's the Orioles' home schedule for opening day and week, plus a list of their weekend home games for the season. For ticket information, call 301/243-9800, and to charge box and reserved seats, 432-0200. To reach the Baseball Store and Ticket Outlet located at 914 17th Street NW, call 347-2525.
MONDAY -- Opening day, Cleveland Indians.
WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY -- Cleveland Indians.
APRIL 18, 19, 20 -- Texas Rangers.
APRIL 25, 26, 27 -- Toronto Blue Jays.
MAY 9, 10, 11 -- Kansas City Royals. MAY 16, 17, 18 -- Oakland Athletics.
JUNE 13, 14, 15 -- New York Yankees.
JUNE 27, 28, 29 -- Boston Red Sox.
JULY 18, 19, 20 -- Minnesota Twins.
JULY 25, 26, 27 -- Chicago White Sox.
AUGUST 8, 9, 10 -- Cleveland Indians.
AUGUST 22, 23, 24 -- California Angels.
SEPTEMBER 5, 6, 7 -- Seattle Mariners.
SEPTEMBER 19, 20, 21 -- Milwaukee Brewers.
OCTOBER 3, 4, 5 -- Detroit Tigers.