Baby, come back

Around the Baltimore metropolitan area, something is happening. It hasn't happened in many years — almost a generation, in fact. It's the end of August, the Orioles are in a pennant race, and there's a sense of possibility in the air.

People are turning to MASN to see if the Orioles are staging yet another dramatic, late-inning comeback. They're flipping on WBAL to hear Joe Angel proclaim — as he has already done more times this season than all of last year — that "The Orioles are in the win column!" They are lapping up baseball coverage in The Sun's print edition and on its website.


And yet, around this same Baltimore metropolitan area, something isn't happening. Although the Orioles are fielding a contending team for the first time since the Clinton administration, attendance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards has been abysmal lately. Monday night drew fewer than 11,000 fans, the second-smallest crowd of the year, to watch Nate McLouth slug a homer in the eighth inning to lead the O's to yet another improbable come-from-behind victory. Tuesday night wasn't much better, as young Chris Tillman pitched his heart out, allowing only one run over seven innings against a powerful Chicago White Sox lineup. It's a municipal embarrassment.

Are there excuses? Sure. This was back-to-school week around the Baltimore region, with tens of thousands of families adjusting to new schedules, new routines and often new schools. The first few days of the academic year, heading out to a ballgame after dinner is probably not the first thing on most people's minds. There was also a threat of rain early in the week. And the preparations for this weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore have made the area around Oriole Park at Camden Yards less than ideal for driving and parking.


Perhaps the fans can't quite believe what's happening. It's true that there's something very quirky about these Orioles. Statistically speaking, they have no business being contenders. They are far from a powerhouse at the plate; indeed, over the course of the season they have been substantially outscored by their opponents. Neither has their starting pitching been anything to write home about. As for defense, they had the most errors of any team in baseball at the All-Star break.

But the one statistic that trumps all others is the Orioles' winning percentage, which after this afternoon's victory stands at .554. They just won three out of four games against the White Sox. Their record is 72-58, and they are heading to New York for a three-game series this weekend against the struggling Yankees — with the possibility of emerging in a tie for first place.

How are they doing it? With guts, heart, sweat, good management and a healthy dollop of luck. It doesn't hurt that their lineup features home run threats from top to bottom. Their ability to win one-run games (thanks to one of the best bullpens in baseball) and to come from behind has been something close to miraculous. Perhaps most intriguing have been the phenomenal contributions of little-known players cast off by other teams — the Nate McLouths, Omar Quintanillas and Lew Fords. What a turnabout from recent years, when it seemed that so many newly acquired players (think Sammy Sosa or Vladimir Guerrero) would put on an Orioles uniform and suddenly start reliving their days in the minors.

For years, we have been told that attendance at Camden Yards was low because fans were depressed over the Orioles' losing ways. They refused to give their money to an owner who seemed reluctant to take steps to make the team competitive in the American League East. The "Oriole Way" of the team's glory days was a dim memory. But these complaints are starting to ring hollow.

The players notice when the stadium is three-quarters empty. Center fielder Adam Jones said, "the fans need to know their physical presence at Camden Yards is important to us." Maybe what's happening at Camden Yards these days is a fluke; maybe it's the start of something big. Call it what you want, but the Orioles are winning, and they're beating the odds to do it. They deserve this community's support, and that means more than flipping on the game for a few innings.

The Orioles are making people all over this country pay attention to our town. The least we can do is pay better attention to them. They've earned it.