Baltimore's field of dreams

The Major League Baseball season is often likened to a marathon instead of a sprint, so it's understandable that Baltimore hasn't yet taken to lighting every window in orange, wearing Manny Machado jerseys every day to work or inquiring about playoff tickets after just two weeks in and six months to go. But, hey, has anyone noticed what team owns the best record in all of professional baseball? That would be the Baltimore Orioles, the club most baseball writers picked as sure to spend October watching the post-season on television, not participating in it.

The numbers offer some encouragement — eight wins, three losses, the fourth highest team batting average, the second highest number of team home runs and the fourth fewest runs allowed by any team in the American League. The starting pitching may look vulnerable, but Dylan Bundy's 1.86 earned run average certainly raises hopes. And that's not even mentioning Trey Mancini, who has hit seven home runs in his first 12 games of MLB ball going back to his first call-up last year. At that pace, the rookie outfielder is a lock to be tested for performance enhancing drugs.

And here's the best number of all: 33,680. That's the average home attendance so far at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a significant improvement since last fall when the Orioles, despite being in the pennant race, experienced difficulty attracting fans (even Boston Red Sox fans in a September series). Overall, the Orioles witnessed a drop in attendance that was nearly 10 times the major league average from the previous year to 26,819 per game. So far this season, the Orioles have vaulted from having the 20th best attendance to the 13th, and that's despite some less-than-ideal April weather.

Why care about attendance? As a bellweather for Baltimore's economic future. Surely the scariest off-season Orioles plot line wasn't the injury to Chris Tillman, the team's most reliable starting pitcher, or the loss of veteran catcher Matt Wieters, but the closing on Feb. 1 of the Camden Pub, the landmark Ridgely's Delight sports bar within a short fly ball of Camden Yards. Owner James "Pat" Liberto said the business had simply become unprofitable since the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray two years ago. "People are afraid to come into the city," he told The Sun's Wesley Case.

Those of us who live and work near Ridgely's Delight and downtown Baltimore know that doesn't make much sense considering how safe that area is (and how heavily patrolled it is before, during and after Orioles games). The city's Inner Harbor tourist attractions aren't crime centers either. But perception is everything, and fear of America's urban centers is a theme that helped Donald Trump to victory in last year's election. For many of his hard-core supporters, places like Baltimore and Chicago trigger only one reaction — fear of violent crime perpetrated by minorities — a perception enhanced not only by the Freddie Gray unrest but by the backlash of conservatives to police reforms pursued in the wake of that incident and the president's penchant for anti-immigrant hysteria.

The Orioles and the Ravens aren't just profitable and high-profile Baltimore businesses, they are part of the social fabric of the state and beyond. Rooting for athletes who wear "Baltimore" emblazoned across their chests means something. Baseball supports that regional identity that's so crucial to the city's economic recovery. John Angelos, the Orioles' executive vice president, demonstrated a pitch-perfect understanding of this when in February he publicly stated his opposition to having President Trump throw out the first pitch of the season. Antipathy toward Mr. Trump is something that unites Maryland, not divides us. Just ask our Republican governor.

We can't predict if the Orioles' winning ways will continue. They are certain to be an entertaining club, capable of slugging four homers in a single game or giving an ESPN SportsCenter-worthy lesson in how to play infield defense. And as April rain gives way to May's bouquets, we would expect Camden Yards to be a hot ticket, the 25-year-old jewel of a ballpark to be just as much fun for fans as it's ever been. If, as Cal Ripken Jr. once observed, you can be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball, then surely you can relive your childhood as long as you want whenever you sit in that stunning red-brick monument to the game and to Baltimore's history.

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