FanFest began with a moment of silence in memory of legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver. As the assembled season ticket holders hushed in reverence, one fan, attired in an O's T-shirt and cap, at the Convention Center tapped his heart, pointed skyward, thrust four fingers in the air and yelled, "We love you, Earl!"
Memories of the Hall of Fame skipper, nicknamed "The Earl of Baltimore" and revered as a favorite son in Charm City, are flooding through FanFest today. The mood is a little somber, to be honest, and fans are stopping by the MASN booth and sharing their recollections of the Hall of Famer.
Weaver passed away early this morning while on an Orioles fan cruise in the Caribbean. He was 82.
Cantankerous, curmudgeonly, brilliant, a true baseball man - Weaver was many things to many people. But Baltimore was lucky enough to have him as the incredible diamond mind behind the championship Orioles teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those were the teams of my youth, when winning 100 games seemed like a birthright. Those were the days when we screamed in delight when Earl went bill to bill in disagreement with an umpire. Who cared if the little field general got ejected? He was a winner for sticking up for his team.
My job has its perks and one of them is getting to speak with the heroes I cheered as a youngster. My last interaction with Weaver came at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury in June 2011, when he was the guest of honor at the fan festival sponsored by the Shorebirds in conjunction with the South Atlantic League All-Star Game.
Weaver was in rare form on that 90-degree day. Stationed beneath a tent that barely protected him from the blaring sun, he wasn't in the best of moods - until someone plopped a pit beef sandwich and a beer in front of him. After that, Weaver was in his element, astonished that so many Eastern Shore fans remembered him.
Later, in a small media gathering in a cramped conference room, Earl patiently answered questions for a few print reporters, Internet writers and TV cameras. When the group broke up, Weaver asked for a glass of water and stuck around, chatting with Steve Melewski, videographer Matt Winter and myself from MASNsports.com.
The last question Weaver had been asked in the media scrum related to the longest home run he had ever seen. Somehow, the conversation turned to the mammoth shot Frank Robinson hit on Mother's Day 1966. It was the only ball ever hit completely out of Memorial Stadium, and was marked until the old ballpark's demise as the Orioles' home by a flag that read simply, "Here." I told Weaver that was my first major league game.
"You were there?" asked Earl, quickly adding that he was managing Triple-A Rochester at the time and hadn't seen it. "Tell me about it."
And a few words into my tale, it hit me. I was talking to Earl Weaver, sharing a baseball memory. He was enshrined in Cooperstown; I was a kid from Catonsville who was lucky enough to be able to write about baseball since I couldn't hit one. I'm sure it happened to Earl all the time, but it reminded me how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to connect in a professional sense with the guys I once cheered and bugged for autographs.
Rest in peace, Earl. You won't soon be forgotten.