Baltimore baseball fans flocked back to Camden Yards and merrily decorated themselves in orange and black as the Orioles authored baseball's most surprising story of 2012.
Now, signs abound that the enthusiasm from last fall — when the team broke a 15-year streak of losing records and postseason whiffs — has carried forward to a new season, which starts Tuesday in Tampa Bay. The Orioles' home opener Friday is the second-most-expensive opening-week ticket in the sport. The team's merchandise accounts for three times as much of the Major League Baseball retail market as it did last year. And baseball analysts are discussing the club as a viable contender in the American League East.
The Orioles stand to profit, as do memorabilia merchants and the bars and restaurants near Camden Yards. One new bar, the Deck at Camden Yards, plans to open this week to capitalize on the renewed excitement.
Tickets for Friday's game are selling for an average of $237.04 on the secondary market — a price that is up from $192.61 last year and is the second-highest in baseball behind the world champion San Francisco Giants, according to New-York-based ticket research firm TiqIQ.
Meanwhile, Orioles merchandise sales account for about 3 percent of baseball's U.S. retail market this year, compared to 0.89 percent for the corresponding period in 2012, according to SportsOneSource, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company that analyzes the sporting-goods industry.
Forbes recently estimated the team's value at $618 million, up from $460 million last year, with annual revenues up 15 percent, to $206 million. The Orioles experienced the largest attendance spike in baseball last season and sold out Camden Yards for two playoff games in October. Team officials won't reveal details of season-ticket sales but say that renewal rates and increases in new buyers are among the highest in the last decade.
"We are psyched," said the Rev. Martha Macgill, the rector of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill and a new season-ticket holder with her husband. They spent $800 on a 13-game package. "We became obsessed fans last year."
Chris Matcovich, vice president of data for TiqIQ, said that in addition to the steep prices for home opener tickets, average prices for all Orioles games on the secondary market are up about 13 percent from 2012. "It definitely shows that fan sentiment is up this year off their first playoff appearance in a while."
The owners of bars and restaurants around Camden Yards say they're expecting strong business in 2013 after last year's surprise playoff run filled their cash registers in August and September.
"The lightning is in the bottle, and we're holding onto it," said Pat Liberto, owner of the Camden Pub on Pratt Street. "You can't even get a ticket for Opening Day because they're so in demand. I haven't seen it this way since the '90s."
Liberto said increased business on Orioles game days bumped his revenues about $10,000 a month last summer and fall, the time when enthusiasm generally waned during the club's long run of losing.
Fritz Brogan said the excitement was part of the reason he invested in the Deck at Camden Yards, a new outdoor bar at the Hampton Inn across from the stadium. "There's a great sense of pride in Baltimore right now, and we're just riding the wave," he said. "We probably would have pursued this project anyway, but we're much more excited because of the excitement around the team."
In the memorabilia world, Robbie Davis Jr., owner of Robbie's First Base in Lutherville, said this is the first year he can remember balls and jerseys signed by current Orioles outselling those signed by past stars Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken.
"It'll pick up even more once they start playing, but people are definitely excited," he said. "People think this team is legit now."
Of course, to maintain that excitement, the Orioles will have to avoid the dismal play that dispirited fans from 1998 to 2011. Many baseball analysts expect them to take a step back from the 93 games they won last season, arguing that the team's remarkable performance in close games is unsustainable.
But ESPN analyst Buster Olney, who covered the Orioles as a beat writer for the Baltimore Sun during their last heyday, isn't among the skeptics. He believes in the team's pitching depth and manager Buck Showalter's mastery of the bullpen. He also senses genuine faith, both inside the clubhouse and among fans, whom Olney observed massing at the Sarasota spring training complex in search of early-morning autographs.
"I went down there expecting to pick Toronto to win the division," Olney said. "But after I spent a few days with the Orioles, I changed my mind."
No big additions
The club's narrative hasn't been all sunshine since its playoff run ended in October with a loss to the New York Yankees.
Some fans expected the Orioles to capitalize on the positive vibes and greater cash flow by diving into the free-agent market. It never happened.
They re-signed one of last year's most important finds, Nate McLouth, and added a few other players, but never emerged as serious bidders for stars such as outfielder Josh Hamilton or pitcher Zack Greinke.
The club's projected Opening Day payroll of about $92 million represents a modest increase from last year's $84 million. That figure will likely fall below the league average, which was about $100 million in 2012. And the Yankees, a divisional rival, are again expected to spend more than twice as much as the Orioles.
Some rival executives were surprised that the Orioles didn't hit the market more aggressively. But the club wasn't alone in opting to hoard draft picks rather than sacrifice them for big-ticket free agents.
Showalter and Dan Duquette, the club's executive vice president of baseball operations, have maintained that they could have spent more freely but chose not to, given the relative paucity of attractive options. They're hoping for continued development among the team's young pitchers and for healthy seasons from rightfielder Nick Markakis and second baseman Brian Roberts.
"And we've continued to build our pitching staff and our defense, and the core players are young, where they should continue to improve their offensive capabilities," Duquette said.
The Orioles have long been reluctant to promise on-field success in marketing the team. And that won't change at the start of 2013, despite the promise that lingers from last season. The pitch to fans will still focus on the overall excitement of a trip to Camden Yards.
The ballpark won't feature the kind of big, obvious additions that characterized its 20th anniversary in 2012. The new roof-deck bar in center field and especially the unveiling of six new statues of Orioles legends were among last season's highlights.
This year, fans will have to settle for a new warning track made of crushed stone and a few additional food options.
On the plus side, the Orioles did not raise ticket prices or the prices for most food and drink.
'Waiting to be inspired'
The lack of special events, such as the statue unveilings — four of which drew sellout crowds last year — is one of the reasons club officials are cautious about predicting an attendance bump.
The Orioles will host a celebration of late manager Earl Weaver on April 20 at 2 p.m., an event that is free. On the morning of Orioles FanFest, which drew a record 18,000 fans, the team announced that Weaver died, but those in attendance had little chance to mourn his loss.
The Orioles drew more than 30,000 fans a game as recently as 2005, when they were already deep into their streak of losing seasons. But the average fell all the way to 21,662 in 2010 as hopes of a turnaround faded and the country remained in the grip of a severe economic downturn.
"It's not like they went away," Olney said of the people who packed the ballpark in the years he covered the team. "They were just sort of waiting. Waiting to be inspired."
Sure enough, as a playoff berth seemed more and more realistic, Baltimore delivered large, raucous crowds that lifted the average attendance last season to 26,610, the best since 2007. The 21 percent attendance increase from 2011 was the highest in the major leagues.
The Orioles aren't likely to repeat that spike and pull their average attendance back over 30,000 unless they play even better, said Patrick Rishe, a Webster University economics professor.
"The sustainability of that interest is really dependent on their ability to remain competitive," Rishe said. "If they go back to playing just as badly as before, I wouldn't be surprised if some of those ticket holders cut bait."
A look at the team's history shows that previous surprise years such as 1989 and 1979 produced significant in-season attendance bumps. The Orioles weren't able to replicate those big increases in either case. Still, attendance remained higher than it had before the surprise seasons.
That seems to be roughly what club officials expect in 2013.
"We saw an increase of over 400,000 fans, and I think it's too early to suggest another increase of that level," team spokesman Greg Bader said. "But we're certainly ahead of where we were at this time last season."
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.
Orioles average home attendance 2003-2012
2003 – 30,297
2004 – 34,344
2005 – 32,404
2006 – 26,581
2007 – 27,060
2008 – 25,000
2009 – 23,545
2010 – 21,662
2011 – 21,943
2012 – 26,610
American League East projected 2013 payrolls
Orioles - $91.8 million
Boston Red Sox - $159 million
New York Yankees - $229 million
Tampa Bay Rays - $57 million
Toronto Blue Jays - $118.2 millionCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun