Courting of Washington fans helped Orioles become the belle of (base) ball


Now that the party's over. It's time to send ou thank-you notes. Baltimore can start by blowing a giant kis toward Washington, its not-so-friendly rival to the south.

That's right, Washington -- the city of transplants, the city that lost two major-league teams, the city that reads . . . congressional reports.

No one from Baltimore wants to admit this, but without Washington, there is no Camden Yards, no All-Star Game, maybe even no Orioles.

"What really turned it around was Edward Bennett Williams making it socially acceptable for the people of Washington to come to Baltimore," former Orioles general manager Frank Cashen said Tuesday night.

"They always resisted it when we had it. The people from Washington and all the people on that side of the Beltway never thought of coming to Baltimore. Now they come out in major numbers."

Cashen, an executive with the New York Mets, was Orioles GM from 1966 to '75. The club won three straight AL titles in that span, but its combined attendance from 1969-1971 was lower than the first-year attendance at Camden Yards by more than 400,000.

The Orioles didn't sell out a single league championship series game in those three years. That's partly because the playoffs were a new creation, but 27,608 for the clincher against the Minnesota Twins in 1970? Camden Yards might not have a crowd that small until the 21st century.

We all know what happened. Orioles Magic in '79. The Colts' departure in '83. And the blackmail by Williams that resulted in the construction of Camden Yards and an All-Star celebration to remember.

Yes, the game would have returned to Memorial Stadium eventually, but the atmosphere wouldn't have been as electric, the city as photogenic, the setting as dramatic.

Downtown Baltimore never looked better than during All-Star Week, and the city is rightly proud. Still, what gets lost in this latest orgy of self-congratulation is the impact of Washington.

Local hard-liners often portray the Washington influence as the beginning of the end for the Orioles as a hometown team. But this would be just another struggling small-market club if it wasn't drawing 25 percent of its fans from D.C. and Virginia.

xTC That much was apparent even before Williams bought the team in '79. Indeed, it wasn't Williams who began the courtship of Washington. It was the local owner before him, Jerry Hoffberger.

"We recognized it had to happen," said Hank Peters, Orioles GM from 1975 to '87. "Free agency was upon us. I could see our market would be in deep trouble unless we started to draw more people.

"Al Harazin and I went down to Washington," Peters continued, referring to the former Orioles executive and Mets GM. "We bought our way onto WTOP -- paid them to carry our games. We established some sales representatives, got some things going."

Williams, of course, took it from there, "pulling out all the stops," Peters said. The expansion of the market took time. But then Camden Yards was built right off I-95, and the Orioles' evolution into a two-headed monster was complete.

Other clubs noticed.

Oh, how they noticed.

"No two franchises had been closer over the years than the Brewers and the Orioles," said Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, chairman of the Major League Baseball Council, during the break.

"I remember sitting in Ed's office in 1981. He had his controller there. I had mine. We found that the Orioles and Brewers in 1980 were virtually identical. We drew about the same. We had the same kind of operation. They had Hank Peters. We had Harry Dalton.

"What has happened here the past five or six years, it's been absolutely remarkable. I think the Colts leaving was a very dramatic wake-up call here," Selig said. "And I think the use of aggressive marketing in Washington has been very, very helpful."

Selig can only wish he was operating under the same conditions. But the Green Bay Packers aren't going anywhere. And instead of attracting fans from a major city 45 miles away, he competes with two Chicago teams 90 miles to the south.

The Brewers plan to build a new stadium of their own, but it won't have the same impact. Everything happened so quickly in Baltimore. Peters recalls setting an attendance record on Brooks Robinson Day in 1977, then drawing a crowd of 3,000 the next night in the middle of a pennant race.

That was only 16 years ago.

And 45 minutes away.

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