Complaints notwithstanding, Orioles season-ticket sales hit peak

The long siege is over for the Baltimore Orioles. Or, at least, phase one of the long siege.

Two months after announcing they were about to begin sending out seat-location notices -- and about a month after the angry letters and huffy phone calls started arriving at Memorial Stadium -- the Orioles say they've reached a milestone.


They've picked out seats at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for their 15,000 existing customers -- and have started filling orders from roughly 5,000 new ones.

Game tickets are scheduled to be in the mail by mid-March, Orioles spokesman Rick Vaughn said.


Team officials say they don't know exactly how many season tickets they've sold for the first season at the new downtown ballpark, but they estimate the total to be about 25,000 full-season tickets, crunching the team record of 17,500, set last season.

Another record within easy reach will be total attendance. To reach 3 million -- a mark the Orioles have never attained in their 38-year history -- the team needs to sell only an additional 12,037 tickets per game, which is a fairly safe bet.

The selling spree puts the Orioles in a class with the major leagues' all-time most salable franchises, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays, who limit their season-ticket orders to 27,000.

There don't appear to be records in the customer-satisfaction department, however. Still to be dealt with are a sizable number of ticket buyers, including some whose accounts go back to the team's major-league rebirth 38 years ago, who have complained about being shifted to seats they claim are inferior.

The squawking even has reached the State House in Annapolis. Last week, Del. Joel Chasnoff, D-Montgomery, introduced legislation that would withhold state funds from the Maryland Stadium Authority until the Orioles offer their Memorial Stadium customers "equivalent" seats in the new ballpark.

Chasnoff said he'd invite disgruntled fans to tell their stories to a house subcommittee that is scheduled to review his bill.

"Hopefully, the legislature can assist long-term season-ticket holders get a better deal," Chasnoff said.

Orioles spokesman Bob Miller said last week that team officials didn't know of the bill and couldn't comment.


Team officials are aware of the firestorm of criticism touched off by the relocation plan. The seeds go back several years, to a historic night in May 1988, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced to a cheering sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium that the signatures were on the 15-year ballpark lease.

Since then, the Orioles have used the new stadium as a slick marketing tool. The sales pitch: Reserve a good seat in the new ballpark by snapping up seats at the old one.

There were few complaints with the approach until last month, when the team began informing season-ticket customers of their new locations. The Orioles have since received about 1,200 complaints.

So far, the team has changed seat locations for 200 season-ticket holders. For the next several weeks, the Orioles say, they'll be weighing the nearly 1,000 other complaints to see which are valid.

"We have to determine which people have been moved because of the new configuration and which have been misplaced as the result of our error or a computer error," Vaughn said.

The team plans to respond to some ticket-buyer gripes by tapping into supplies of unassigned tickets, including the team's allotment of "house seats." These are seats the team holds back each year for use by team management. They include an undisclosed number in prime areas behind home plate.


Vaughn said he couldn't estimate how many house seats the team would have at the new ballpark. He said the number was fluctuating.

The Orioles also have held back some "buffer seats," Vaughn said, because team officials anticipated that the move would result in some unhappy customers.

"We're human. We make mistakes," he said.

Watching the process closely will be a number of season-ticket buyers who don't like their new seats and have told the Orioles so. Loudly.

Nathan Goldberg is one.

One of 48 remaining Orioles customers who bought their tickets when the team moved to Baltimore in 1954, Goldberg's six seats at Memorial Stadium were steps from the field. At Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Goldberg is in the 11th row at the outfield end of the third-base dugout.


Goldberg complained to Orioles officials about the new and, in his view, inferior location.

"What can I do? I am going to sit here and see if they do anything," Goldberg said.

He is convinced his case for a seat change must be more convincing than most.

"They [the Orioles] admit to 48 original [season-ticket customers], and probably not all of them are unhappy," Goldberg said. "So you're talking about a couple dozen people. How many tickets can that be?"

The relocation process also has caused some anxious moments at the law offices of Stephen L. Miles. Miles said that last year his seats at Memorial Stadium were near the first-base dugout, four rows from the field. At the new park, his seats are in section 12, and he is not thrilled with the view -- "I'm lined up with the right fielder," he said.

Miles said the Orioles have told him he will learn soon whether his seats will be improved.


Do these cases and the others involving unhappy customers suggest that the Orioles have misled and mistreated their loyal customers? Or that it is impossible to move 17,500 fans from one slat-backed chair to another without irritating a few?

The answer may be both.

On the one hand, the Orioles are quick to point out that unhappy customers are a minority, that only about 8 percent of their season-ticket customers have lodged complaints.

On the other, they acknowledge that their problems are concentrated in the lower-box seats, where ticket buyers with seniority are likely to be sitting, and where efforts to please should be greatest.

But if disputes arise most often in the lower boxes -- the roughly 11,500 prime seats from foul pole to foul pole -- that's understandable, too, for demand for those choice locations long ago outstripped supply, the Orioles say.

Last fall, the Orioles sent questionnaires to their season-ticket holders asking for their seating preference at the new ballpark. Vaughn said "somewhere near 90 percent" of forms were returned with requests for lower-box seats.


"We only have about 11,000 seats, so obviously we weren't going to be able to take care of everyone," he said.

In the hot seat in Chicago

lAST season, the Chicago White Sox uprotted fans from Comiskey Park and moved across the street to a new park of the same name. They had about a third as many season customers as the Orioles. There was considerably less shouting.

"We, had some complaints, but only because of the difference in structure of the ballpark," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "Some people were used to sitting in the front row and had to get used to sitting behind the dugout."

Reinsdorf said he took care of a few friends who requested prime seats. He said one VIP order he filled personally was from former Illinois governor Jim Thompson, who led the fight to finance the new stadium.

There was no public outcry over that move or others that #F maneuvered friends of the owner into the best seats, Reinsdorf said. That is a slightly different outcome from in Baltimore where Eli Jacobs has been taken to task by some fans who have wondered whether the Orioles' owner has reserved good seats for his friends -- at their expense.