The sparse crowd that showed up at Oriole Park on Wednesday night did not set any dubious records, but it did leave open an obvious question:
How much more can Orioles fans take?
Their team is off to its worst start in years and the players have been dropping like fly balls in the left-field corner. Infielder Tim Beckham, who moved to second base to fill in when Jonathan Schoop went on the disabled list, joined him on the DL on Wednesday and is expected to be out of action for more than six weeks.
The Orioles lost, 8-4, to the Tampa Bay Rays, suffering their 10th loss in 11 games and trailing the first-place Boston Red Sox by 12½ games in the American League East. The rapidity of the early collapse has to be creating some high anxiety in the stands.
"It has affected me a lot," Warren Wunder of Glen Burnie said. "I'm sorry to see the Orioles start out the way they did. In spring training, I thought they were going to come around. Evidently, something is not meshing. I don't know what it is."
Well, that probably isn't a big mystery. The Orioles have played the toughest schedule in baseball over the past four weeks and they've been playing without several key players. If that hasn't been disheartening enough, they've been in a deep offensive funk that can't be totally explained away by the stiff competition.
How could the confidence of the fan base not be shaken at this point?
"Yeah, at the moment, yes, but we've been through this before," Linda Schmidt of Middle River said. "I don't think they'll get a playoff spot, but it would be nice to put a couple of wins together in a row. It's the Orioles. They have ebbs and they have flows. The last couple years have been really fun and good. This is a slump."
It didn't stop Schmidt and her friend Mary Lu Hartley of Parkton from showing up more than an hour early to see new starting pitcher Alex Cobb make his Orioles home debut.
"I'm going to say what everybody says, there's still plenty of baseball left to play," Hartley said. "It's only April. I think they can turn it around. I'm looking forward to seeing Cobb tonight and the guy they just got from the Yankees [infielder Jace Peterson]. And we always have a great time coming out here win or lose. We don't care if we're one of 50 people out there. It's a blast. We love it. We have faith in the team."
This was not a scientific survey, but it seemed like just about everybody voiced the same mixed emotions as they settled in to watch the series opener. There clearly is some discontent, but also hope that the retooled pitching staff and a little more time to get healthy will put the Orioles in position to start climbing out the deep hole they have dug with their 6-18 start.
The slow start and foul weather has depressed attendance to the point that the Orioles set their all-time single-game low a couple of weeks ago when fewer than 8,000 fans showed up for a school-night game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Attendance on Wednesday night was announced at 8,730.
During the four-game series against the Indians this past weekend, Orioles fans were easily outshouted by the Cleveland fans, but that was largely because Orioles fans had very little to cheer about.
Dave Taylor of Lansdowne has come up with a bit of reverse logic to justify his belief that the Orioles will not only turn a big corner, but will charge back to compete for the division title.
"They'll come around," he said. "I look at it this way. They're going to start off slow. The last couple years they've started off hot and they've died down after the All-Star break. They're going to start off slow. They're going to wind it up and then get hot after the All-Star break and take the division."
It's difficult to get a broad sense of fan discontent by going into the stands. The fans who showed up Wednesday, just by their presence on another night threatened by bad weather, figure to be more positive than fans who stayed home. But who wouldn't be discouraged after the Orioles collapsed at the end of last season and picked up this month right where they left off?
"Yes, very discouraged," Bryan Elder of Lynchburg, Va., said. "After last year, it looked like it would be a promising year. They just haven't gotten off to the start I would have thought we would have gotten off to."
If that feeling has eroded the strong bond that has formed between the Orioles players and the fans over the past six years, reliever Darren O'Day said he has seen no sign of it.
"No, I haven't," he said. "I don't sense that. I think that our fans have seen a lot of good baseball in the time I've been here and I count myself as being lucky to be a part of that. I hope they still associate us with good baseball."
Catcher Caleb Joseph, who has opened the season in a deep offensive slump, said he still gets positive feedback from the fans he meets around town, but would not expect anything different from personal contact.
"More times than not, they've been more or less excited to see you," Joseph said. "When you have that eye contact, they wave and shout, 'Go, Orioles.' I don't think I've ever had someone who recognized me and made eye contact, give me the thumbs down."
That's not necessarily the case on social media, where the message board fans can be vicious.
"In person, great and kind," Joseph said. "On the internet, oh man. I'm not even allowed to go on the internet. My wife bans me from going on the internet when I have a tough game."
Manager Buck Showalter said Wednesday that it's hard not to feel responsible for the impact of the Orioles' poor recent performance on the fans and future attendance.
"Without a doubt," he said. "That's another guilt trip you agonize about. It's about managing the guilt about the things that you're responsible for that aren't going as hoped. It makes everybody's job harder.
"That's one of the things when I first came here. We wanted the presentation of being successful. The people in marketing and the people who sell tickets, they can be the greatest at what they do, and I think they are, but if we're not winning and presenting a product that people want to be a part of, that's our fault."
Despite the palpable fan frustration, Joseph said he has been inspired by the number of uplifting messages and texts he has received during a slump that has dropped his batting average to .100 and cost him a lot of playing time.
"I've been sent so many Bible verses," he said, "I feel like I've read the entire Bible over the last 3½ weeks."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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