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Is Baltimore still a baseball town?

Is Baltimore still a baseball town?
Fans sit near the right-field foul line at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during a recent Orioles Bluejays game. Game attendance is almost as bad as player performance.

For the 18,173 hardy souls who braved scorching temperatures and allegedly made it to Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sunday, the Baltimore Orioles-Boston Red Sox contest turned out to be a humdinger. The O’s won 5-1 with a one-hitter and solid offense including three home runs. The word, “allegedly,” applies because the ballpark looked much emptier than the official attendance estimate, an ocean of empty green spotted with the occasional baseball fan like floating jetsam in a sea of folded seats. Even under the circumstances (sauna-like temperatures, sink-hole-obstructed traffic, lingering suburbanite fear of crime, and, above all, the team’s woeful performance this season), it was a dreadful number. Only one team drew worse and that was Tampa Bay where fewer than 15,000 souls showed up to see their team beat the White Sox, 4-2, in a much cooler environment given that Tropicana Field has an air-conditioned-dome.

Orioles fans have a host of excuses to explain why they continue to stay away from Camden Yards. The most compelling is that the Birds have one of the worst records in baseball (Detroit is giving them something of a run). They are remarkably futile in most every aspect of the game. But that alone doesn’t explain the drop in home attendance. The Orioles lost 107 games in 1988 and averaged nearly 21,000 fans per game. They lost 98 in 1999 and averaged 23,545. They are on track to lose (slightly) fewer than last year’s 115 games but average about 17,500 people in the seats this year compared to 19,311 in 2018.

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Now, roll in the other complaints of O’s fans from high ticket and concession costs (Camden Yards ticket prices are actually middle-of-the-pack within Major League Baseball), traffic woes, fear of crime (although, again, attendance was better during the season of Freddie Gray — amazingly), competition from the Washington Nationals and the return of an NFL franchise to Baltimore in 1996, some fan unfriendly personnel moves (keeping overpaid, under-performing slugger Chris Davis while giving up the beloved Adam Jones), the dreadful weather and the general drop in baseball attendance nationwide (for the fourth season in a row, according to early projections) and the real shocker would be if Camden Yards sold out. Still, does all that justify the Orioles bottom-dwelling attendance numbers? Only Tampa and Miami have a worse gate and Detroit, that team with a nearly-as-bad-record and arguably worse crime woes, brings in about 2,000 more each home game. What gives?

Here’s one possibility. On top of everything else, Baltimore’s love for its major league ball club may have reached a low ebb. Gone are the days when a brand spanking new Camden Yards would be packed to the rafters, when O’s teams that drifted around a .500 winning percentage would still attract 33,000 or more fans per game, when 3 million or more season attendance was not uncommon. This is not an accusation, not a matter of belittling “fair weather” fans as if they had an obligation to shell out $70 or more to watch a team lose, it’s just a recognition of how tastes can change. When the Orioles won the World Series in 1970, attendance at Memorial Stadium averaged 13,050 per game and that was long before there was a MASN televising home games in the comfort of your rec room. So perhaps this is a return to form.

The problems facing professional baseball have been well chronicled on our sports pages. Players are striking out more, the disparity between successful teams and unsuccessful ones has never been greater, there’s less action on the field, and games drag on too long despite efforts to shorten them. In the slam-bang, instant gratification and often violence-centered internet age, it is the sport that most closely resembles watching paint dry. And it is also the sport least willing to be updated. Just look at how the leagues haven’t addressed the designated hitter rule in 46 years. One league has it, the other won’t. This is diplomatic intransigence on a Middle East scale.

Blame Orioles management, blame Major League Baseball, blame the players, blame the city, blame whomever you want. But at some point, one has to question whether Baltimore is the baseball town it was back in the days when the Colts left town and the “boys of summer” were all we had. For those who can still remember those glorious days, that’s kind of sad.

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