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Exchanging tales with Red Sox nation

Special to Baltimoresun.com

It is hardly more than what you would expect to find in an Iowa cornfield -- just a baseball diamond with a few bleachers on three sides and a scoreboard in the distance -- the complex is almost unworthy of the title "stadium" by today's colossal, major league standards.

But Fort Lauderdale Stadium is temporarily home to the Orioles each spring, and it manages to fill the role quite perfectly.

Walking in, you can feel the tiny stadium swelling with anticipation for the coming season. Packed so tightly within, the emotion seems ready to overflow and overtake the city at any moment. Any larger, though, and the park would be as impersonal as the regular season can be -- too many people, too much space, too much distance between the fans and the action, so much going on that the game gets lost. Things seem more natural down here in this pseudo-stadium. They fit together better: the fans, the players, the stories.

Spring training is filled with stories. There are so many here you have to wade through them each game, pitch by pitch, inning by inning. They pour down from the seats behind you and rise up from the seats in front. Everyone brings a story to share, at least one, about their first trip to Camden Yards or the only time they got to see Cal play. There are some stories fresh from the game last night and others many years in the making. The die-hards bring hundreds.

The stories are everywhere, inescapable. The tales you can gather just walking from your car to the stadium alone are enough to fill any normal fan's needs. And they touch on everything. Some are more about life than about baseball. Some are more about what happened after a bad game than what happened during it. Some make you wonder why you stopped to talk with a stranger in the parking lot in the first place. Regardless, the stories are what define spring training.

It was at a game against Boston last week when I really realized this. The game sold out, filling an 8,000-seat stadium with 7,998 Red Sox fans. The other two? Myself and a friend, sitting behind the Red Sox dugout. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. For at least one afternoon, the Orioles were away in Fort Lauderdale.

Upon sitting down, the gentleman in front of me made sure to let us know just how outnumbered we were, "Oh, there are Orioles fans here?" Yes, yes there are, rare as we may be these days. "Endangered species," I replied.

And so it began.

For nine innings, we danced with the stories surrounding that game. The man in front of us was actually a Mets fan, at the game because, well, because what better place to be on a Sunday in March? My friend and I were the only O's fans in our section, but that was expected. The other dozen people around us were all Sox fans, some from Boston, some from New York, some from Florida.

Plenty of people, plenty of places, plenty of stories ...

None of them understood why I knew every word to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," or why it was blasting in the seventh inning with our team losing by a run. But now they do. Maybe next time they find their way to Camden Yards they'll get up and sing along too. Meanwhile, they taught me more about Kevin Millar than I ever really needed to know, and how to properly turn that -AR into -AH at the end of his name. We all agreed that life was better when the Yankees lost, at least a little bit.

The game in front of us was less than stellar, but no one seemed to care. We all got a first look at the new Daniel Cabrera -- seemingly the same as the old Daniel Cabrera (walk, walk, walk). We all wondered why Joe West bothered to waddle in all the way from behind second base to talk to Sam Perlozzo in the middle of the sixth inning (maybe because umpires get bored too). When the game ended, we wondered if the regular-season meetings would be as friendly (only if the Orioles are as bad as they have been for the past decade).

Those are just a few beginnings of the stories we found and shared. Sitting at a keyboard a week later, it would be impossible for me to remember everything I heard that day. But when I find my way to Opening Day in two weeks, I'm sure it will all come back.

And I won't just have a better tan than my friends when we walk into Camden Yards. I'll have these stories, too -- the kind that can only be told at a baseball game, the kind that you only go to a baseball game to find.

Dan McGrain is a die-hard Orioles fan and a senior at the University of Maryland.

Throughout spring training, baltimoresun.com will publish reports by Orioles fans that made the trip to Florida for baseball's preseason. From Grapefruit League games to minor league camps, our crew of fan correspondents will weigh in with their spring training insights and experiences -- your source for a healthy dose of spring fever.

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