Like Royals, O's must embrace city

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Those Orioles sure could learn a thing or two from the Kansas City Royals.

I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say - after all, the Royals own the worst record in the majors and would be a middle-of-the-pack Double-A team - but you probably haven't seen their commercials.

In the one area where the Orioles struggle most (hint: It's not pitching), the Royals might as well be punching Hall of Fame tickets.

The Royals' current ad campaign is called "Your team, your town," and as an outsider watching the commercials, you can't help but think that it's exactly what the Orioles need.

The TV spots depict Royals players in front of various Kansas City-area landmarks. They're standing and smiling at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in the Plaza, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They're eating barbecue and they're riding a roller coaster at Worlds of Fun amusement park.

And each time a new landmark flashes on the screen, the player says the same thing: "This is Kansas City." In fact, those are the only words spoken in the commercials.

The approach might not sound particularly groundbreaking in some markets, but here in Baltimore, the campaign strikes you like a French film without subtitles.

Embracing the community? Celebrating your town? Creating a local identity? What are these? Thoughts of a madman?

When I moved here one year ago, I didn't exactly understand why one in five people wanted to talk about returning the word "Baltimore" to the Orioles' road jerseys. I think I get it now, but changing the stitching to the way it was from 1956 through 1972 still would be only a symbolic gesture. As I'm continually reminded, a local address does not automatically make you a local.

I'll admit that the mentality struck me as odd when I first came to town, but I've come to appreciate the provincialism. The strong sense of community underlies so much of what happens here.

Many fans believe the Orioles started to abandon Baltimore when Edward Bennett Williams took over ownership in 1979.

Broadening the Orioles' reach at the time still makes sense as a sound business plan. Teams are in the business of making money and the league's geography suggested that the wider the Orioles stretched their arms, the more fans they could welcome into their family. It wasn't abandoning Baltimore, rather inviting more people to be a part of the city.

But that's an outdated model and with a target audience that's shrunk over the past couple of years, it's time for the Orioles to embrace their city again.

Williams was wooing the D.C. elite - and it worked; attendance jumped. Years later, Peter Angelos followed suit, trying to stretch the Orioles' brand into D.C., Virginia and Delaware. I'd have a hard time faulting him for that. It just makes smart business sense and is essential for a small-market team.

But the addition of the Washington Nationals changes everything. This season, attendance is down nearly 5,000 a game from a year ago, the worst average since 1988.

The season's pathetic attendance figures illustrate at least two important points:

1) The crowds aren't flocking in from all over the region;

2) They aren't even flocking in from all over Baltimore.

In political campaigns, candidates reach a point where they switch gears, stop chasing the special interest groups and start rallying their base. The Orioles have a large base right here in their backyard; they just choose to ignore it.

When the Ravens arrived in town more than a decade ago, they knew it was futile to sell the team all over the region. They threw a "B" on the helmets and became a part of this city. The Orioles can't say that the market is too small to draw locally when the Ravens barely roll out of bed and fill a stadium to the brim.

The Orioles operate under the assumption that soon they'll be winning games and then both their local base and their commuting fans will converge on the ballpark. They might be right, but shouldn't they wonder about the meantime? Shouldn't they wonder about how they're perceived in the community right now? Shouldn't they remember that their role is bigger than a simple business or even a simple baseball team?

It's a civic institution that assumes a few civic responsibilities.

The Royals commercials end with their season's slogan flashing across the screen: "Your team, your town, your Royals." If you can forget for a second about the Royals' bumbling owner and their blundering players, that slogan should serve as a model for any small-market team struggling in the win column.

"We usually shoot our commercials during spring training in a hotel room or something," said David Witty, the Royals' vice president of communications and marketing. "But last summer, we thought it was time for something different. So in September, we put our guys in their uniforms and took them all around town.

"It's really been a big hit for us. The fans always want to connect with the team, and we wanted a way to connect our players with the fans."

The idea transfers ownership to the people who are guaranteed to outlast every slugger, manager and owner. The fans and the city are fully vested.

There's no reason that here in Baltimore you can't flip on your television and see Melvin Mora standing atop the Bromo-Seltzer Tower. Miguel Tejada hanging in the Inner Harbor. Nick Markakis strolling through the Walters Art Museum. Brian Roberts busting open a crab. And Sam Perlozzo smiling down at the shipyards.

"This is Baltimore," they'd each say.

Then maybe - just maybe - people here would remember that you don't go to the ballpark solely because you're watching a winner. You go because it's a part of the culture here, it's a way to celebrate who you are and where you live.

The Royals campaign didn't boost attendance this season and maybe it didn't even affect optimism. But something similar here would go a long way toward bridging the gap between a struggling franchise and its disenfranchised fans.

This isn't about wins and losses. It's about reconnecting. And it's finally time.

The Orioles need to remember not only that they're a part of Baltimore - but that Baltimore is a part of them. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after -- Rick Maese

Three weeks away -- Because I was out of town for the Ravens' first preseason game, Thursday's against the Eagles was my first. It certainly seems like Sundays will have a different feel this season. Rather than holding your breath whenever the offense takes the field, there might actually be reason for optimism. I thought Ray Lewis said it best. Like you, he has been watching the offense struggle for a long time. "I've been around 11 years and to have that type of ball control is overwhelming," he says. "You look at - my goodness, I could talk about [Steve] McNair all day - but you look at the three running backs that we have in Musa [Smith], Jamal [Lewis] and Mike Anderson, what they can do on offense, it complements our defense very well."

Coming attractions -- I wanted to go see the new movie Snakes on a Plane, but rather than spend $10 on a ticket, I think I'll just wait at the airport for the Cincinnati Bengals' team flight to land when they come to town to play the Ravens in a couple months.

Mackey site -- A new Web site has been started by the John Mackey Fund, Inc.: johnmackeyfund.org

Tony, Tony, Schmuck? -- I kind of hate to share this with you, but it seems that Tony Kornheiser, the newspaper columnist turned Monday Night Football celebrity, really seems to have inspired our own Peter Schmuck. Not to be outdone by his D.C. counterpart, Schmuck plans on spending Mondays this fall at local youth league games, talking into a hairbrush and telling jokes to anyone who walks by.

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