ANYONE YEARNING TO feel more popular needed only to step inside the scalp-free zone at Camden Yards looking for tickets for last night's game against the Devil Rays.
The trickle of potential buyers was swarmed by some two dozen sellers hawking their tickets as feverishly as bidders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Talk about a buyers' market.
"This is the worst I've seen it," said Jack, a twentysomething seller who wore a white shirt and sunglasses and asked that his last name not be used. "No one wants to buy tickets to this game."
No one? That was a bit of a stretch, but the point was made. The club announced an attendance of 26,615 during the game. In terms of actual people in seats, the park was, oh, maybe half full at best. And it could have passed for a movie set by the end of Tampa Bay's 7-1 win.
The fans' collective yawn was rationalized easily enough - the Orioles have now played seven of their 13 home games against the Devil Rays, the American League's worst (and least interesting) team. Playing a last-place team so often has been a boost for the Orioles' won-loss record, but getting anyone to care has been a challenge.
Things are certain to get a lot livelier starting tonight when the Yankees move in for a four-game series, but the thousands of Yankees fans who routinely take over the park are liable to find the atmosphere even more accommodating than usual.
Attendance at Camden Yards is down, way down - that's the only way to put it. Some 100,000 fewer fans than a year ago have paid to watch the first 13 games, resulting in a per-game decrease of almost 8,000. Of the 29 other major-league teams, only the Tigers, in their second year in a new park, are experiencing the same kind of falloff.
True, it's still too soon to gauge this year's level of interest in the Orioles, just as it's still too soon to gauge the quality of a club that is hanging around .500 a month into the season, to the surprise of more than a few observers.
Twenty-eight games against five different opponents just isn't a worthwhile sampling in either area, on the field or at the gate.
But let's just say that, for the first time in recent memory, the folks in the warehouse probably are relieved to see the Yankees coming to town.
As much as facing Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina on consecutive days might damage the club's won-loss record, sixth place in the AL attendance standings is where the Orioles, ahem, don't want to be - and that's exactly where they are now.
Cold weather in April, the binge of Tampa Bay dates and gloomy forecasts for the 2001 season have all contributed to the slow start at the gate, as club officials rightfully point out.(Incredibly, the Orioles will leave town after the Yankees series and head back to Tampa Bay after having just left there 11 days ago. In all, the Orioles will play 13 of their first 35 games against the Devil Rays. Who made out this schedule, Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" character?)
But what isn't being said is this - a fair percentage of the fans who used to fill Camden Yards just aren't coming anymore, at least not regularly, and if you suggested that it was because they were displeased with the direction of the club, you'd probably be on the right track.
Management knew this was coming, of course; it accepted an immediate future with more empty seats when it purged last year's veteran clubhouse and announced a switch to youth, rebuilding and a long-range blueprint - a switch the fans wanted and the team desperately needed to make.
But the fans' disfavor has been a lot easier to accept in theory than in practice as the Ravens, Terps and Hasim Rachman march on in a parade of area champions and the Orioles stare at a probable fourth straight losing season for the first time in franchise history. You can almost hear owner Peter G. Angelos gnashing his teeth or, more likely, barking at his baseball office.
The Yankees series, culminating with Sunday's much-anticipated return of Mussina, should at least generate the area's first baseball buzz of the season. At the very least, it'll provide a brief respite from the onslaught of Tampa Bay games.
"This place'll be lined up with buyers," said Jack, the ticket seller, waving his arms at last night's desperate scene in the scalp-free zone.
It's funny, interviewing folks out there is a lot like interviewing matinee patrons at the racetrack - they'd sell their mother before giving out their last name. But things still have a way of getting boiled down to their essence in the club's designated ticket-bartering compound behind the left field seats.
"If the team keeps hanging around .500, business should be OK," Jack said. "People love to come to this park, especially when the weather turns nice. If the team stays competitive, there'll be fans."
But what if the team isn't able to sustain its surprising and relative success of the season's first month?
Let's just say that the Yankees don't come along every weekend, for better and for worse.