At the bottom of his locker in Memorial Stadium, Dan Ford has a two-foot-high stack of color photographs of himself, suitable for autographing and sending to Baltimore Oriole fans, should any request a likeness of his visage. The stack, wrapped in cellophane, has been opened, but, so far, little dent has been made in the pile.
The more the Orioles know Dan Ford, the more they realize how deeply he wants that stack of photos to dwindle. Few players in baseball are as connected to their fans as Ford. He's a hot dog in the truest sense; he'd love nothing better than for the crowd to adore him. Ford plays for the fans, for the cheers, for the flash and dash and thrill of the moment almost as much as he plays for himself or his team.
Nothing pleases Ford more than being a favorite of the crowd, and nothing discourages him as much as having it against him.
In Ford's case, that makes life in Baltimore difficult. In the history of the franchise, perhaps no player has been booed as intensely as Ford was last season. Few Bird fanciers doubt that the Doug DeCinces-for-Ford trade with California was the biggest reason the Orioles didn't go to the World Series last year; DeCinces hit 30 homers and produced 161 runs to Ford's 10 and 79.
Now, Ford, who's one of the more sensitive, vulnerable, please-like-me souls that you'll meet on a ball field, has begun to hope that he'll eventually find a place in the Orioles' fold. He's already been accepted, although not quite embraced, in the clubhouse, and the same process is under way with the crowds.
On Sunday, Ford had two or more hits in a game for the sixth time in his first seven starts of the season, he moved into the league lead in hitting (.448) for the first time in his career and made a circus outfield catch.
Quicker than you could say, "Fans are front-runners," the crowd in the right field corner was on its feet giving Ford a standing ovation. Ford doffed his cap, showing his bald spot, and took a tiny, sincere bow.
"That made me feel good," said Ford, beaming. "I'd have to say that was the first one (ovation) I've gotten here. There are still a few boos, but they're slowly drifting out.
"Sure, I tipped my hat. I acknowledge the fans as much as they acknowledge me. That's what I did in Anaheim . . . I don't know whether I would have tipped my cap last year. They cheered me then sometimes, but, after the next at bat, they'd boo again. It was like a seesaw all year. I like to feel appreciated. When they acknowledge me, that's my 'thank you.' "
In a year, the changes in Ford are hard to pinpoint, yet they seem real. He arrived with a reputation as a "problem." In 1981, he had two on-field fights and a three-day suspension for using a corked bat. He posed for a centerfold in Playgirl magazine and had problems with then California manager Gene Mauch. Ford's first act upon being traded was to have his agent try to get him a bonus to agree to the deal.
The fact that Ford arrived with only two years on his contract, and the assumption that he'd leave for a higher offer after the '83 season only aggravated matters.
To make bad worse, Ford batted .185 in April and had a horrific time with wind-blown fly balls; it became a Memorial Stadium game to see how many cutoff men he could miss.
The Orioles found the private Ford very different from the trendy player with all the wrist bands and batting gloves, the bizarre stance and the strutting run. Ford was a hard worker, determined to overcome knee surgery after the '80 season. Ford was smart; when the Palmers and Singletons and Lowensteins told their little quick-witted jokes, the kind that buzz by many players, Ford was fast on the pickup.
Above all, the Orioles sensed that Ford wanted to be accepted as part of a winning team, even if he didn't know quite how to do it. He talked about the cliquishness of the me-first Angels, and about how he could see that the Orioles had a familial quality. When he was benched, Ford was the towel-waving cheerleader. Conspicuous, but sincere, too.
Gradually last year, Ford improved as an outfielder and base runner, but not as a hitter. Those Memorial Stadium boos had him intimidated. As an Angel, Ford was a darling of the unsophisticated Anaheim crowd and usually hit his best at home. As an Oriole, Ford hit .262 on the road, but only .203 at home.
For Ford, an offseason to think and the appointment of a new manager were godsends. Ford respected Earl Weaver, but was intimidated by the little legend's forbidding tongue and schoolmasterly mien. On the field, Ford faced the crowd; in the dugout, Weaver. Where could he go for the kind word, the appreciation he had always fed on?
The soft touch of Joe Altobelli, the pats on the back, the assurances that the right field job was his--all the things Weaver either didn't believe in or couldn't bring himself to do--appealed to Ford.
"We're off to a better start this year because the team is looser," he said.
Ford entered this season with a new stance--both toward the pitcher and the game.
"Me, just being the kind of player and person I am, the game's all mental," he said. "I've accepted that I'm going to be what I am and who I am. I'm just tryin' to be Dan Ford again . . . I'm finally coming back to myself."
Ford, a player of roller-coaster emotions on a team of stoics, now allows himself to show his joy--leaping into the air and spinning after beating out an infield hit. When he wants to show anger, or tell a joke, he does. A team of thoughtful players can use a free spirit and Ford has jumped at the role.
It also helps if you can hit the ball.
"Now, I'm seeing the ball well and I'm just trying to put wood on it . . . hit it all around the park. I was a better hitter when I did that," said Ford, hitting .394 going into tonight's game. "Last year, I tried to pull too much, 'cause everybody said Earl liked homers, and when that didn't work, I said, 'Now, I'm really messed up.'
"What I do well is hit line drives, hit it hard on the ground. (Hitting coach Ralph) Roe reminded me of that.
"I've changed my stance. I'm not (quite) as closed. On the ball (pitch) in, I use my hands, not my body. I try to think of playing pepper. I just hit the ball inside out to right.
"Last year, it seemed like all I saw was fast balls up and in and sliders low and away. Now, they'll have to adjust to me."