As Oriole Park at Camden Yards greets its 16th Opening Day this evening, the facility that began the nationwide wave of retro-ballparks is still widely regarded as the most elegantly executed of them all. What is profoundly different now, as opposed to earlier seasons, is Oriole Park's recent failure to fulfill the promise of what a jewel of a downtown stadium was intended to provide to the economic well-being of the city: that is, producing the crowds and enthusiasm that the presence of the stadium and its energy should - and once did - bring to the streets, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, museums and other downtown attractions.
At the north end of the stadium complex stands the historic and wonderfully preserved Camden Station. It houses two worthy institutions, the Sports Legends museum and Geppi's Entertainment Museum. Both hold out hope that this baseball season will bring the crowds that have been painfully absent in recent years. They are like thousands of merchants in the downtown area who have been feeling the impact of the precipitous decline in attendance at Oriole games.
During the first six years at Camden Yards, the Orioles averaged a phenomenal annual attendance of 3.37 million fans. Throw out the strike-shortened 1994 season, and the average rises to 3.54 million. That represents a lot of people and money streaming into downtown.
One would think that such enormous support would also result in the team being able to maintain a competitive edge, and initially that seemed to be the case. After posting only one winning season in their last six at Memorial Stadium, the change of venue to downtown brought immediate results: six straight winning seasons, the first trips to the playoffs in 13 years, a division championship and two consecutive appearances in the American League Championship Series.
But a series of decisions and indecisions have combined to create the perception of an organization in disarray, with ever-changing general and field managers, players, scouts, minor-league affiliations and even broadcasters. The result has been nine consecutive losing seasons and an increasingly bewildered fan base.
Indeed, the Orioles have become the epitome of noncompetitiveness. Those nine consecutive losing seasons have produced 654 wins and 803 loses, a dismal .449 winning percentage. This accumulating record of failure has had a huge effect on attendance, and, correspondingly, on the livelihoods of all those who hold stakes in the vitality of downtown. The 2006 reported attendance of 2,153,139 was a whopping 42 percent less than the record 3,711,132 who turned out for the team's last winning season, in 1997.
This is not just a sports issue. It is a matter of public concern. A publicly funded facility needs to return a discernible benefit for the public's investment. It also needs to fulfill its promise to the many people who have invested their dollars, careers and lives to be part of the economic potential that the ballpark holds. It can only do so if the team that enjoys tenancy at the stadium is run in a manner that takes maximum advantage of the public's commitment and the fans' support.
Like the museums at Camden Station, the people who depend on a regularly full stadium can only hope, as all baseball fans do, that this spring will bring an end to their long suffering. That Erik Bedard will thoroughly establish himself as a staff ace. That Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen will find their full potential. That Leo Mazzone will extract new magic from Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel. That newly acquired veteran hitters Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton will solidify a productive lineup. And that the expensive bullpen makeover will hold leads that closer Chris Ray will wrap up.
Springtime is all hope and possibility, and a great deal more than sports success is at stake. In addition to fulfilling its potential as an economic catalyst, Oriole Park has another responsibility. As a public gathering place and the forum for shared experiences and memories, it becomes a community adhesive and generational bond. It is in this that professional sport transcends itself as a business and becomes part of the fabric of our culture and heritage. For the stadium to serve that revered function, it must host a team that earns the hearts of its followers and rewards them with shared memories and the right to say, "I was there."
In nine losing seasons, a childhood's worth of passionate memories - of exhilarating wins and painful late-season losses - have been lost. For a franchise that was once the model of consistent excellence, it is time to fill a town's hearts with more than springtime hope.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.