A year ago this week, an ignominious Camden Yards record was set when the Orioles drew 16,083 fans to a Wednesday night game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was the smallest crowd in the history of the ballpark, which opened in 1992.
The shelf life of the record was, to say the least, brief. The very next night, almost 3,000 fewer fans came out to watch the Orioles play the Devil Rays again. It was a Bob Beamon moment, the record taking a major leap after having been advanced incrementally for years.
The smallest-crowd record lasted through the remainder of last season, quite a feat given that the Orioles lost 92 games, but it has faced challenges this week as sparse crowds have marked the club's first 2007 homestand.
So far, the old record has repulsed all threats. The crowd of 13,288 that watched the Orioles and Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night was 94 fans above the record. The crowd of 13,229 that watched the Orioles and Kansas City Royals on Thursday night was 35 above the record.
What does it mean that this year's worst crowds aren't quite as bad as last year's worst crowd? Well, it doesn't mean the Orioles' attendance is on the rise again after its recent free fall - the first person to suggest that gets bopped with a foam finger.
At the risk of having my season press credential revoked, it means the Orioles are still facing a problem that their $79 million in offseason expenditures hasn't solved. Nine straight years of losing baseball has turned off a lot of people who used to buy tickets.
The pace will pick up when the weather improves and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to town, but early indicators suggest the Orioles' 2007 attendance will bear a striking resemblance to last year's, which was the lowest per-game in Camden Yards history.
Asked about the sparse crowds that have followed Monday's Opening Day, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said, "We [in uniform] can't concern ourselves with that. We know we've got a duty to get that back."
Then he said, "It's going to take us awhile."
Perlozzo didn't elaborate, so you can speculate about his definition of "awhile." A few weeks? A few years?
But whatever his timetable, his use of "us" and "we" hints that he believes it is up to the players, coaches and manager to lure back disaffected fans. That's certainly true, up to a point. The Orioles aren't going to experience a palpable swell in attendance until they start giving fans more than .449 baseball, which is their winning percentage since they last fielded a winning team a decade ago.
But while winning would go a long way toward curing what ails the Orioles at the gate, it isn't the only determinant in the complicated calculus that has led to the fans becoming disenchanted. While they want to see a winner above all, they also want to feel better in general about the team. More connected. More in sync.
Too many fans think the club stopped looking out for them when they let a popular announcer (Jon Miller) walk away, started shuffling through front office regimes and seemingly settled for fielding an inferior team.
As much as today's Orioles want to dismiss that as old history, they're still paying for all that. Fans view their relationship with their favorite team as a personal bond, and that bond is severed when fans cease to believe their team is looking out for them.
The process of repairing that bond actually is easier than the process of rebuilding the team. Fans want to root for a team that has them in mind, a team with forward-thinking management, a team willing to have fun.
How about letting the Camden Yards ushers turn the other cheek and occasionally let scheming kids sneak into better sections late in games? How about inventing forums that let owner Peter Angelos interact more with fans? (He would survive better than anyone thinks.) How about holding an "Elvis Night" at Camden Yards, patterned after the one the Chicago White Sox put on that is absolutely a scream?
How about finding a way to employ Brooks Robinson instead of alienating him? (Could there be a better baseball ambassador?) How about a public tip of the cap to Ravens successes?
The on-field product is improving, however incrementally, but in many other ways, small and large, the Orioles could send signals that make them seem more attractive, open-minded and fun-loving. It wouldn't necessarily translate into increased attendance right away, but if they started winning again, their crowds would swell that much more.
And until they started winning again, if they ever do, it would make them that much more appealing.
The Orioles have drawn the second- and third-smallest crowds in Camden Yards history for this weekend's series against the Kansas City Royals. A look at the team's average attendance for its first five home games and the month of April for the past 10 seasons:
Year 1st 5 games April
1998 41,563 43,434
1999 41,800 40,624
2000 39,557 41,414
2001 38,779 33,544
2002 35,951 31,560
2003 32,328 27,003
2004 32,783 28,298
2005 36,748 32,305
2006 30,898 25,584