Save 75% - Only $49.99 for 1 full year! digitalPLUS subscription offer ends 12/1
SportsOrioles

Fan belief in Orioles deepens as club reaches another midseason in contention

Baltimore OriolesBaseballChris DavisOriole Park at Camden YardsMedia IndustryJ.J. Hardy

Maureen Hall cradled the bulbous, papier-mache mask with its black feathers and orange beak. The temperature had pushed past 90 degrees, but the 6th-grade teacher from Parkville didn't hesitate to pull it over her head as onlookers snapped photos of her and the surrounding orange-clad legion of Orioles fans.

This was how summer was supposed to feel for a Baltimore baseball fan. The fellowship reminded Hall of childhood evenings in Waverly, where she could see the lights of Memorial Stadium from her back porch and hear the crowd chanting "Eddie, Eddie."

"It just reminds me of the old days," she said. "Just that magic."

Despite Friday night's ninth-inning loss to the Yankees, the club's success in 2012 and through the midpoint of this season has stirred something in Baltimore fans that lay dormant through long years of losing. Hall and others talked about it last week as they lined up outside a Modell's sporting goods store at 10 a.m., drawn to a "Vote Orange" rally by the chance to meet Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth.

If last year's playoff run felt like an unexpected gift from the fates, the orange-and-black faithful have now started to believe they're entering a new golden age for a franchise that was baseball's best from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

There are hard-and-fast ways to measure this at the mid-point of the 2013 season, which the Orioles reached during last weekend's home sweep of the New York Yankees.

Attendance at Camden Yards is up more than 13 percent at a time when it's down almost 4 percent across baseball. Orioles television broadcasts are the top-rated program in the Baltimore area for adults 18-49. The club owns 3.3 percent of the U.S. retail market for baseball merchandise, more than double its share through the same point last year, according to industry analyst SportsOneSource.

With All-Star teams to be announced today, three Orioles are on track to start the July 16 game in New York, a total that would tie a club record last reached in 1997. The Orioles bolstered voting in part through rallies such as the one in Parkville.

"We're seeing all the measurables in our favor, showing that growth," said Orioles spokesman Greg Bader. "So there's definitely a greater interest and a greater passion and excitement this time this year."

But it goes beyond numbers. The Orioles are back in Baltimore's bloodstream. You can see it in the proliferation of orange "O" stickers on city cars, hear it in workplace chats about last night's game.

Fans no longer talk about this as a plucky bunch of faceless youngsters. They have formed powerful attachments to individual players — Manny Machado, the baby-faced doubles machine; J.J. Hardy, the cerebral captain of the infield; Chris Davis, the reclamation project who dumps pitcher mistakes deep beyond the fence.

Jeff Caslin, 57, can't help but draw connections between these players and the Birds he grew up cheering. In Machado, he sees Brooks Robinson's dashing play at third base. In Hardy, he sees Mark Belanger's cool mastery of shortstop. In Davis, he sees the left-handed might of Boog Powell.

The Fallston resident ran into Powell at Camden Yards on a recent evening and shared the Davis comparison. "Yeah, but I was faster," Powell cracked.

"That's the fun part for my generation, being able to see those similarities," Caslin said, standing next to Hall at the rally in Parkville. "To see this change happen over the course of last year and into this year has been so much fun."

For Hall, the fun has come from seeing her students at Parkville Middle get excited about decorating their classroom like the Orioles dugout, from watching her 12-year-old daughter finally understand mom's fussing about the glory days of Orioles Magic.

"People have that pride," Hall said. "It's nice to see that. We haven't had that in a long time."

As recently as 2011, it would have been hard to imagine a crowd of 200 coming out during work hours to celebrate the Orioles. But the "Vote Orange" rallies, designed to spur excitement and encourage All-Star voting, have drawn similar crowds across the area in recent weeks. They're an extension of the "Buckle Up" rallies the club organized as the Orioles pushed for the playoffs last fall.

The gatherings — combined with offers of limited-edition shirts, autographed balls and player meet-and-greets for serial voters — have convinced fans to stuff the ballot boxes for the All-Star game. The Orioles have never had more than three players voted in as All-Star starters, but Davis, Hardy and outfielder Adam Jones are all on track, with Nick Markakis just behind for the last outfield spot.

Fans are also opening their wallets for merchandise, especially the jerseys of young stars such as Machado, said Joe Linn, a district manager for Modell's who oversees stores in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

"Sales of Orioles stuff are probably up 60-to-70-percent from this time last year," said Linn, standing between a rack of Machado shirts and a bin full of plush Oriole birds. "The Ravens had a die-hard fan base built up through years of winning, but now the same people are coming out of the woodwork for the Orioles. It's not brain surgery. If the team's winning, we're doing well."

As clearly as interest is up, it hasn't reached the peak levels of the late 1990s, when Camden Yards had opened recently and the team was contending. As recently as 2005, the Orioles drew more than 32,000 fans a game, compared to about 29,000 a game this season.

Why haven't the crowds come all the way back?

Perhaps the presence of the Washington Nationals offers a partial explanation. In their attendance heyday, the Orioles were the primary team for the entire Baltimore-Washington area. Now, the Nationals draw almost 34,000 fans a game to their downtown ballpark.

"I think there are several factors," Bader said of the attendance levels. "One of them is clearly that there's another club close by. One of them is that the team performed poorly for so many years. But what we're seeing now is people of all ages coming back in the fold or becoming Orioles fans. It takes a little while for everyone to come back into the fold."

Players recognize this and take pride in the fact they've slowly refilled the stands at Camden Yards. "It takes awhile," said McLouth, one of the unexpected heroes of last season. "After the organization had an extended period of losing, we've had to earn back their trust."

Last week in Parkville, fans tittered as they spotted the outfielder and his well-sculpted blond hair. "There he is," said Pam Crawford, 56. "There's his hair!"

Crawford is one of the many fans who've made watching these Orioles a daily appointment.

"The women from my church, we have appointed ourselves the co-managers and coaches of the team," said the Towson resident. "You know, it's great. If you're worried about something else, you can set it aside every night and watch the game."

But with the club in playoff contention for a second straight year, the switch has already flipped from "pleasantly surprised" to "now, they better win."

"The expectations are there now," McLouth said. "They expect us to win. And that's how it should be."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Orioles midseason by the numbers

Record at midpoint 2012 – 44-37 2013 – 45-36

Avg. home attendance – 2012 – 25,746 2013 – 29,209

Share of U.S. retail market – 2012 – 1.44 percent 2013 – 3.28 percent

All-Star starters – 2012 – none 2013 – three leading in voting

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Baltimore OriolesBaseballChris DavisOriole Park at Camden YardsMedia IndustryJ.J. Hardy
Comments
Loading