Saturday morning saw a steady stream of Orioles fans picking their way across the salted sidewalks and parking lots of downtown Baltimore, nine thousand in all, on their way to the Convention Center to participate in FanFest, the annual celebration by the Orioles for those fans who have still stuck with the team through all the years of losing.
Shortly before the doors were scheduled to open to season ticket holders at 10am, a small group crossed Howard Street heading towards the entrance, myself among them: just an anonymous face in the crowd. One lone street vendor had braved the cold and the ice to set up a canopy and peddle merchandise along the sidewalk of Conway.
My fellow fans headed past the canopy, but I turned to go up the steps to the entrance for media. Where most days I am just another idiot with a keyboard and an opinion, for FanFest I was to be set up with a press pass for the day, not quite a somebody and not quite a nobody.
The door for the media entrance was locked when I got to the top. In the back of my mind, I was still waiting for the part where someone jumped out of nowhere with a camera and told me it was all a joke. Good one, guys! You got the blogger real good. Outside of the confines of my mind where the grim scenarios incubate and hatch, an Orioles employee walked over and opened the door for me.
"Hi," I said, "I'm Mark," fully expecting the response to be, "Who?"
"Welcome, Mark! We've been waiting for you. What took you so long?"
Contrary to my dire imaginings, my name was on the paper and there was a pass for me as there was supposed to be. Just like that, my day as a sorta-somebody at FanFest was underway.
Inside, everywhere I turned had that calm before the storm quality. Many of the faces I saw going about last-minute preparations were familiar from Oriole Park at Camden Yards; here and there were ushers and ticket-takers looking like they were ready for Opening Day themselves. The empty hall was on the eerie side. Fortunately, the place wouldn't be staying that way for long.
My little yellow daily media card entitled me to get into the press area, where I had been told there would be space for laptops. What this actually meant was that in a cramped, dark corner there was space for three laptops to be set up. If I was going to do any covering of the event it was going to be Twitter or bust.
Season ticket holders trickled in for a special Q&A with Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. The panel opened with a video of the bottom of the 9th inning on September 28, 2011, starting with Chris Davis' double: video from MASN, audio from the radio. One common theme through the day was that any time someone mentioned this or this video played, the crowd burst into applause.
Players and fans both remain excited about the last memory from the 2011 season. Buck talked about the Curse of the Andino t-shirts he'd seen and in his interview time with reporters, Nolan Reimold, whom Orioles fans will always remember for that game-tying hit, called the game the highlight of his career and admitted that he'd downloaded the game on iTunes and watched it many times.
Interviews with players never stopped being surreal for me on the day. You know how sometimes you see on TV a player with a bunch of recording devices or microphones stuck in his face? Yeah, that really happens, so there I was jostling politely for space with the likes of Brittany Ghiroli and Peter Schmuck.
Taking notes was a challenge, too. The interview area was very close to the main stage, so the sound from the current panel was drowning a lot of things out. Recorderless fool that I was, I had to contort myself to hear well and take notes. This worked better some times than others. Jake Arrieta I heard very well; Nick Markakis I did not hear much of at all. Nick did still say "you know" a lot.
Some players hung around for a bit even after their interview time was over. The regular writers are friendly with the players and there was a lot of catching up on the offseason's events. Sometimes they were there even if no one was interviewing them.
At one point, I was standing on one side of a trash can, and I looked over and on the other side was someone who looked a lot like Brad Bergesen. My brain realized after a couple of seconds of staring that it actually was Brad Bergesen. I guess I could have gone over and said something, but what do I say to a player who's never met me before? An introduction seemed presumptuous considering my relative importance was to be temporary.
Probably I ended up thinking about it too much, but given that my status was a bit on the ambiguous side, I didn't want to commit some accidental faux pas that would be a mark against myself, Camden Chat, or bloggers in general as far as the Orioles are concerned. After my day behind the curtain, I am more convinced than ever that fan bloggers could add something to Orioles coverage if they were regularly given access to players. I don't want to be the one to mess that up.
While the beat writers cover the big news, there is plenty of room for bloggers in coverage as well. For instance, when Jim Johnson was made available to us, the first question someone asked him is if he thought he'd be in the bullpen. Johnson said he'd talked to Duquette and believed he would be in the bullpen. Britt, Roch and the Baltimore Sun's new Orioles beat writer Eduardo Encina whipped out their phones right that second and started typing out tweets about this without stepping away from the circle.
So, that was the big news about Jim Johnson. We also heard about his 100" projector TV and that he is a big Giants fan, and for me and the two other blogger-types, what he thinks about Tim Tebow's problems as a quarterback from a mechanical standpoint. This is not breaking news stuff, not worth an article or any column inches for a beat writer, but for a fan writer, it's cool to hear. To the fan who sits in the stands or watches on TV it makes Jim Johnson more of a real person, rather than just the guy in a uniform who strides in from the bullpen, throws some pitches and leaves the game.
As for not embarrassing myself, well, I think I batted .500. I was standing nearby while Jake Arrieta was talking to Steve Melewski about some of his specific mechanical improvements due to his now-healthy elbow. When Steve walked away, I stepped up and asked Jake a bit more about what he'd been doing through the offseason, how much the team kept in touch, what his connection was like with pitching coach Rick Adair.
Not so successful were my few questions for Zach Phillips, a LOOGY candidate. He was one of the only players who none of the beat writers bothered to talk to and I kind of felt bad. Several players talked about their experience at the minicamp at Camden Yards this past week, so I decided to ask Phillips about his. Turns out he wasn't invited to the minicamp. Whoops!
Occasional awkward moments aside, another highlight of my day was getting to shoot the breeze with a couple of the beat writer types. Britt Ghiroli was nice enough to talk to me about how she came to get her job and how she approaches it. I left that conversation appreciating that a smart and dedicated person is bringing us O's coverage. Melewski also talked to me for a bit. On Camden Chat, we don't all always agree with his analysis, but you can't doubt his passion for trying to give the fans a window into the Orioles organization.
All good things must come to an end, and my day on the inside was no exception. Eventually the time came for things to wind down; player interviews were done, the beat writers headed home to file stories and the hall began to empty. Not one for long good-byes, I took a last look around, shed my press pass and mixed back in to the crowd: just another fan heading out into the cold, dark evening, where, for all the day's optimism, the likelihood of a fifteenth-straight losing season awaits.