"My greatest fear was not the fans' anger, but their apathy." -- Edward Bennett Williams, Oriole owner
"Happy New Year," Wild Bill Hagy called to a fellow Oriole fan who always sits in Hagy's section in the stratosphere behind first base.
It was nearly an hour before game time and the self-proclaimed Section 34 Rowdies were in their seats, draining their thermoses and cheering the Orioles through batting practice.
"I've been chomping at the bit ever since they went out," said Hagy as he pushed back his white cowboy hat to see the program he was signing for one youngster. "There's nothing like going out to the ballpark."
Hagy, the team's unofficial mascot, is a Baltimore cabdriver by day, super fan by night. During the strike, Hagy spent his evenings picking up more fares and defending the Baltimore ballplayers to skeptical fans. "The O's more than any other team tried to get it settled. I tried to tell the people that.
"But I think the fans took the strike personally. I know I did," he said, sipping a beer. "I think it stunk."
There were 19,850 at tonight's game, compared with an average of 29,000 at last year's midseason Royals-Orioles series here. Most of them seemed to share Hagy's devotion to the team -- they cheered when the players took the field, draped signs that read, "We Love You Orioles," and were apparently adamant in their belief that true baseball fans would not hold a seven-week strike against the team.
"We come to about 30 games a season. I guess that makes us fans," said Harley Smithson. "I'm just glad to have them back."
"People forget pretty quickly," added his fiance, Mary Jane Szmajda.
Szmajda said she and Smithson were also cheering for third baseman Doug DeCinces, the American League player representative and a key figure in the settlement talks during the strike. Tonight, DeCinces drew more than a few boos. "Sometimes," she said, "I think we're the only DeCinces fans."
Outside the Memorial Stadium gates, a few people carrying picket signs protested the strike, the split season and what they perceive as the demise of baseball.
"They've made baseball a business and their product just isn't worth buying," said Pat Conner, a season ticket holder who last night was holding a sign that read: "Boycott Baseball '81."
"We're die-hard Orioles fans. It really hurts not to go inside," said Joe Kruse as fans passed by, many jeering at the homemade signs. "Most baseball fans are addicts. During the strike they said they wouldn't come back, but this first game. . . It's like being offered a cigarette after you've quit smoking. It tastes sooooo good."
"We love the sport, but we can control ourselves," Kruse added, casting a wistful glace at the stadium.
Standing apart from the youthful protestors was J. Robert Rutkowski, a middle-aged Baltimore cash register salesman who was wearing a sandwich board that read: "Fan on Strike Against Greedy Ballplayers and Weak Kneed Owners."
"I just want to show my disgust of the players for their greed and the owners for backing down," Rutkowski said. "The strike definitely weakened the structure of baseball. It's not going to be a family thing to do any more. It takes 30 bucks right now to bring your wife and a couple of kids out to a game."
Of course, some inside the stadium shared the protestors' sentiments.
"I personally believe that the strike was unnecessary. As much money as these guys earn . . ." said Jim Williams, a Maryland state policeman, shaking his head. "The reason I'm here tonight is because it's state employes' night and I bought my tickets back in April."
Others were here just for the novelty of attending the first game after the longest strike in baseball history.
"I'm not a Baltimore fan," said Mark Russell, a Washington carpenter who was searching for his reserved seat. "I haven't seen a ballgame since the Senators."