WHY DO so many people go to Oriole home games? Reliably, all season long, whether the home team is or isn't winning, the ballpark fills.
The answer is not just Cal Ripken's many admirers. Nor is it simply the nearness of Washington, the pleasing length of old warehouse or the breeze that advertises ready barbecue. The answer is plainer than that: Home runs.
Much or little else may go on during those nine or more innings, but a fan is mathematically justified in expecting a moment when pitcher and batter join in sending a baseball upward, onward, over-the-fenceward. A four-bagger! The thrill has ripples: the ruling on fairness/foulness, the bleacher scramble for possession of the home-run ball, the scoreboard numbers changes and visual replay, the estimate of distance traveled, the expression on the pitcher's face or lips, the hitter's welcome as he returns to the dugout.
Thirty ballparks are home to the big leagues. Starting with 1992, the year Oriole Park opened, Denver's park has averaged 3.2 home runs per game -- at 5,000 feet up, gravity is less of a drag. The Detroit and Seattle parks were next, at 2.6 and 2.5, but both have now been superseded. Then, at 2.4 homers per game would be Oriole Park at Camden Yards, except that last year Cleveland's imitative park (and powerful batting order) inched past. For all of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the figures for Cards and Cubs are lower. Lowest of all, over those eight seasons, was the Houston Astrodome, at 1.5 homers per game.
These computations are from Dave Vincent of Woodbridge, Va., the top home-run expert of the Society for American Baseball Research. The fly ball that leaves an outfielder just standing there gawking as it goes by overhead, Vincent agrees, "must account for some part of the Camden Yards turnout." Granted, it matters whose uniform, ours or theirs, the hitter is wearing. In 1992, that inaugural year, the Birds smote 92 homers; the foe, 69. This we-and-they ratio continued. In 1995, the first plus-100 year, the visitors' total was 108; the O's responded with 121. (Yes, home-run totals bear out the grandstand wisdom that change has intruded upon baseball manufacture.)
Year after year, a fan expecting more of the home-game homers to be hit by the Orioles has been rewarded for his or her faith.
Well, every year except the one just past: Orioles, 98, opponents, 101. (For statistical aid, thanks also to Mark Fine of the Orioles.) Was it only a coincidence that 1999 was also the season when Baltimore finally lost out in the attendance standings?
Let us not overstate the case for the 400-foot out, the stratospheric popup. When the third base coach's repeated gestures have said bunt, or take, or hit behind the man going down to second, let's not swing for the fences, fellows.
The 2.4-per-game stuff can wait for afterward. There'll still be a chance, in the team's clubhouse or aboard the fans' light rail, to praise the people who designed and built Homer Heaven at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
James H. Bready, a retired Sun editorial writer, is the author of "Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years."