Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. at a Q&A during the 1998 Fanfest (Chiaki Kawajiri, Baltimore Sun photo, Jan. 31, 1998)
They started back in 1988, under the name “Baltimore Orioles Winter Carnival.” A few years later, the name was changed to the one that marks not only the annual return of baseball to Baltimore, but also the first hint that Old Man Winter, no matter what sort of stranglehold he has on the city, is finally on his way out.
Is there any more welcome day in a Baltimore winter than Orioles Fanfest?
The first one was held at the Omni Hotel, which had a capacity of about 5,000 — more than enough, organizers thought. O’s officials were anxious for a way to herald the coming season and stoke interest in the team (which had had a few rough seasons and was about to experience one of the worst ever, losing 107 games, including 21 straight to open the season). Inspired by the annual Cubs Convention (which just had its 29th edition Jan. 17-19), club officials decided the best way was to bring players and fans together for a celebration of baseball and the O’s.
"It was packed," remembers Julie Wagner, a former community relations manager with the team who is now a vice president of community affairs for CareFirst. "We were just overwhelmed with folks."
(Attendance has never been a problem for Fanfest; last year’s set a record, with 18,500 people showing up.)
Kevin Millar hands an autographed baseball back to a fan during Fanfest 2007. (Elizabeth Malby, Baltimore Sun photo, April 1, 2007)
After a few years at the Omni, the Orioles moved to the Convention Center. That’s where it’s still held, although for a few years, the festivities were moved to Orioles Park at Camden Yards itself (and if you think the convention center gets crowded, imagine maneuvering your way through the relatively narrow halls of the OPACY club level).
Despite the challenges of bringing the players back to Baltimore for the weekend from all corners of the U.S., Fanfest organizers say things have historically worked out pretty well. The players show up, the fans show up, and everyone has a good time immersing themselves in baseball for a day.
"It always went pretty smoothly," remembers Evelyn Ehlers, who spent more than 20 years with the team and helped allocate the small army of volunteers that keep Fanfest running. "Once you did a couple, it became easier… You learned to handle the autograph lines better, the photo lines better. It was always a hectic few days, but always a lot of fun."
Cal Ripken Jr. at the inaugural Orioles Winter Carnival in 1988. (Photo by Evelyn Ehlers)
Throughout, the autograph lines have remained constant. Autographs used to be free, and the resulting lines would be truly massive; it wasn’t unusual to wait well over an hour, only to find that the player you wanted was gone by the time you made it to the head of the line. Autograph vouchers now sell for $20, and the lines max out at 250 people. While free is always better, at least that makes things a little more orderly and predictable — you know who you’re getting in line for, and that he’ll be there for you.
Fanfests have had a little bit of everything. One year, fans were able to pose alongside the O’s 1983 World Series trophy and maybe a player or two from that team. In 2007, Fanfest was held at Camden Yards in April, just before Opening Day; players signed autographs from tables set up at field level. And last year, the passing of Orioles legend Earl Weaver earlier in the day had many fans making the trek over to the stadium, where a steady stream of flowers and other tributes were strewn at the feet of No. 4’s statue, which had been dedicated just the previous season.
"We always wanted to make Fanfest a celebration of baseball, a chance to hear and touch the players, to interact with them," says Wagner. "That’s the wonderful thing about Fanfest that has continued throughout the years."