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Baltimore Orioles

‘Does the game care about us?’ Orioles fans, Baltimore businesses feel sting of MLB delaying Opening Day

Jonathan Vandy grew up an impassioned Orioles and baseball fan in Bel Air. He figured 2022 would be a good season to try to pass that love along to his young daughters.

One of the 3- and 6-year-old girls’ favorite songs is John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a County Boy,” a staple of seventh-inning stretches at Camden Yards. Vandy hoped they would get to experience it in a ballpark Monday, with tickets secured to sit by the dugout for an Orioles spring training game.

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But spring training games, including that one in Sarasota, Florida, were canceled as Major League Baseball owners and the MLB Players Association tried to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. The day Vandy and his family were supposed to watch the Orioles, the two sides met late into the night. A day later, with no deal in place, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the league’s cancellation of at least the first week of regular-season games.

Negotiations between the owners and players have featured baseball jargon that’s not likely to be of import to the casual fan, such as the competitive balance tax and a pre-arbitration bonus pool. What’s clear is this: Baseball won’t return to Camden Yards on March 31 as planned.

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The league does not intend to reschedule lost games, meaning MLB will likely play an incomplete season for the second time in three years. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in a 60-game campaign in 2020.

The latest situation gives an already-weary Orioles fan base another reason to feel disgruntled, as the club’s seemingly bright future gets pushed further off. And the delay comes as a blow to downtown Baltimore’s efforts to recover from the pandemic, leaving ballpark staffers and businesses without their typical income for the third straight season.

“It doesn’t seem like [the owners have] got the fans’ interests at heart,” Vandy, 38, said. “They seem almost petty with the players a little bit. What is the actual objective here, other than just being able to win the argument?”

‘Do you want to play?’

Shortly after the early December expiration of the previous collective bargaining agreement, owners unanimously voted to lock out the players, a move Manfred wrote at the time would hopefully “jump-start” negotiations. The league then waited more than seven weeks to make a proposal to players. From the end of the World Series to Tuesday’s announcement, nearly four months passed without a new deal.

“Why does it take so long to sit in front of a table and talk to somebody?” asked Clarence “Fancy Clancy” Haskett, who is awaiting the start of his 48th season as a beer vendor at Orioles games.

The league’s decision affects not only players and fans, but also local businesses and those such as Haskett whose income depends on games being played. After no fans were in the ballpark in 2020 because of the pandemic and the Orioles limited capacity in 2021 to help control the spread of COVID-19, another shortened season will be “terrible,” Haskett said, especially for his friends whose only source of income is vending.

“Who’s to say that it won’t go until the end of April or the middle of May?” he said. “Once you start losing games, now you’re chopping into your yearly salary.”

The players’ association pledged $1 million in support to affected stadium workers Friday, with MLB also expected to set up a fund. But those efforts will do little for businesses outside of ballparks who benefit from fans coming to and from games.

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Of the businesses that depend on foot traffic to the games, none is more closely associated with the Orioles than Pickles Pub, which is directly across the street from the stadium. Co-owner Tom Leonard and his partner dipped into their savings to keep the popular pregame watering hole afloat when the pandemic kept fans away in 2020. Now, they’re dealing with another threat to their livelihood if the lockout stretches on.

“I’m not mad at either side; I’m more mad at myself for having faith in the sport,” Leonard said. “Does MLB really think — regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong — do they really have that much faith in fans and people around the stadium and TV viewers and advertisers to come back, especially after two years of a pandemic? It’s like, do you want to play?

“We’ll make it, but the impact is felt day one.”

Pickles won’t be alone in that regard. Each lost home game means a lost stream of fans for businesses in downtown Baltimore. Thus far, the cancellations have cost the Orioles three games in Baltimore and six total in their 162-game schedule.

“I love baseball and I love the Baltimore Orioles, who do so much for our city,” Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement. “I’ve been watching O’s games since I could walk. I look forward to a great season when it commences and hope that happens as soon as possible. Not just for fans of baseball, but for the families and businesses that depend on the game.”

‘All out of hand’

The sides spent their negotiations far apart on a range of issues, many of which relate to the union’s desire for younger players to receive higher salaries. Teams’ revenues have generally increased in recent years, while payrolls have stagnated.

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“As a person who pays for the product, those are the guys who are performing,” said Jason Benowitz, 28, of Gaithersburg. “There is no baseball without the players.”

But others might have a hard time convincing themselves that either side is more in the right in a billion-dollar industry. The owners could hardly have picked a worse time to lock out the players, said economist Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group.

“This is the second time in three years that the major leagues have not been able to deliver a full season of baseball, and in this case, it’s preposterous,” Basu said. “People who play and run baseball have no problem affording milk and insulin and repairs to their automobiles, but the average American does. So the effects of this, the animosity, could linger.”

Dan Loftus, 47, of Bel Air, agrees. The league and players’ proposed minimum salaries for 2022 were both in the range of $700,000. As the father in a family of four who sees how expensive it is to attend games, Loftus struggles to empathize with either side.

“It’s all out of hand compared to what real-life people face all the time,” he said.

‘Same sort of spin’

The league has continually presented the situation to the public as if it had no other option than to cancel games. The Orioles sent an email to fans with tickets to affected games saying, “the league has been forced to delay the start of the regular season” and “is exhausting every option to avoid any more delays to the 2022 season.” Neither is true. As swiftly as owners implemented the lockout, they could lift it, allowing spring camps to begin as negotiations continue.

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“The email that they sent seemed so tone-deaf,” said Jody Madron, 51, of Sykesville. “They never once use the word ‘sorry’ in that email. ... It just basically continued the same sort of spin that’s been coming from Manfred and from everybody else, that this is somehow unavoidable.”

The Orioles and other clubs continued to sell tickets for the opening week of games in the lead-up to the official delay and are still doing so for other early-season contests and all remaining spring training games. The team directed further requests for comment on the negotiations and lockout to MLB.

The impact the delay will have directly on the Orioles remains unclear. Of MLB’s 30 teams, only the Atlanta Braves have public financial statements, and while they won the World Series in 2021, the team’s owner reported positive revenues even before that. In 2021, the company reported $6 million in baseball revenue per home game.

Fitch Ratings said the cancellations won’t have an immediate effect on MLB and stadium-level debt ratings, but “team and stadium financings will face rating pressure sooner than the league if the lockout extends beyond April.”

The Orioles ranked 26th in attendance last season as they staggered to their third 100-loss season in four years. The club’s rent is based on various revenues; it paid the Maryland Stadium Authority $1.6 million in the previous fiscal year. That’s compared with an average over 30 years of $6.8 million a year.

If they hoped to begin turning the tide this year behind exciting young stars such as Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Adley Rutschman, that process will be delayed by the lockout, even if it’s short, Basu said.

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This is not 1995, when the Orioles suffered little hangover after a player strike wiped out the previous year’s World Series. With Cal Ripken Jr. moving inexorably toward playing in 2,131 straight games, they drew more than 3 million fans to a still-fresh Camden Yards.

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“In terms of the future impacts, this is a massive negative blow to Baltimore,” Basu said. “ … The Orioles are developing some really superb young talent and missing these games hurts them more than other franchises. What does this mean for the pace of their renaissance? At some point, this team is going to be good again, but this delays that moment in history when people really start to fill up Camden Yards again.”

When fans will be able to go to Camden Yards at all and begin celebrating the ballpark’s 30-year anniversary remains to be seen. The home opener is now scheduled for April 11 against the Milwaukee Brewers, but negotiations between the league and players could continually push that back.

Some fans, such as 31-year-old Roni Pereira of Catonsville, said the circumstances won’t impact their love of the team. Pereira’s friends have scheduled his bachelor party around being in Tampa Bay when the Orioles visit the Rays in early April, and further cancellations would wipe out the centerpiece of their plans. But Pereira said his resentment would be directed toward the league, not his favorite team. He’s not alone in that feeling.

“I’m going to be the first one in the stadium on Opening Day whenever I can get there,” said Freddie Leatherbury, 24, of Towson. “I want to go root for the players. I want to go root for the Orioles as a team. I don’t see anything that I would gain from holding a grudge against the Orioles.”

Benowitz isn’t worried about fans who are as passionate as he is, but those who perhaps started getting into the sport only in recent years. He said he builds his yearly schedule and finances around being able to go to more than 30 Orioles games a year. But even he and his friends have started to ask, “Does the game care about us as much as we care about it?”

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Madron wonders if, whenever it comes, this season’s first game at Camden Yards will feel like Opening Day at all.

“It seems disingenuous that we’ll have this big celebration of the opening of spring and the opening of a baseball season,” Madron said, “when you’ve canceled that for no good reason.”


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