'People are hungry for this'

Orioles fans come to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to see the baseball game against the Cleveland Indians.
Orioles fans come to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to see the baseball game against the Cleveland Indians. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Two Sundays ago the Orioles won for the 41st time, guaranteeing a winning record at the mathematical mid-point of the season — Wednesday's game in Seattle will be their 81st — for the first time since 2008. Despite a recent swoon, the club appears capable of at least pushing for one of two wild-card berths and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Baltimore is beginning to realize it, if maybe not quite believing it. Fans here have endured 14 straight losing seasons and, from June 18 to July 2, watched their birds of summer sputter to three wins in 13 games. Still, interest has been piqued.

Attendance at Camden Yards has increased an average of 4,500 per game. Walk-up crowds have been larger than expected; almost 11,000 people bought tickets after 5 p.m. on May 25, the most ever to do so in the 20-year history of the ballpark. Television viewership is up 48 percent, according to research MASN shared with The Sun. There's more orange and black in the streets and bars, fewer people asking when, exactly, the Ravens report to camp.

Adam Jones, the team's gregarious center fielder who has exhorted Orioles fans to show more intensity and loyalty, has noticed the change. He credited the fans with spurring the O's to a 2-1, come-from-behind win against the Nationals on June 23, the culmination of a three-game series that brought an average of 44,661 fans to each game.

"With an atmosphere like that, as a baseball player, you never feel like you're out of anything," said Jones, who made his second All-Star team Sunday along with two other teammates, catcher Matt Wieters and relief pitcher Jim Johnson.

Jones' new contract — a long-term, big-money commitment to a star player entering the prime of his career — may have helped stir the fan base. But winning, said Orioles communication director Greg Bader, has mattered most.

"That May 25 game was a combination of things," Bader said. "It was a holiday weekend, we had good promotions going on, it was a great day, the rumors about Adam's contract were starting. But really the thing that tied it all together was that the team was winning."

The Orioles were 12 games above .500 then; they've sunk to 42-37 (not including Tuesday's late game in Seattle). So pardon anyone casting the recent losses as the inevitable arriving a bit later than usual. But there are those who've seen enough to feel that this year is different — the recent skid being a result of injuries and bad luck — and that the club could play .500 ball the rest of the way and end the second-longest active streak of losing seasons in baseball. The Orioles are on pace to draw more fans than they have in any year since 2007, Bader said. Increased ticket sales and better viewership for MASN — a majority of which is owned by O's owner Peter Angelos — could infuse more money into the operation and possibly allow executive vice president Dan Duquette to build around the team's young core with free agents. There's reason for optimism.

Out on Eutaw Street, that has led to a "Mardi Gras-ish atmosphere," according to the marshal of that celebration, Boog Powell. The former Orioles slugger can usually be found before games near the barbecue stand bearing his name, talking with any fan who will listen — and to Boog, most do.

"There hasn't been anything like this for years," he said. "The way the fans are excited, it hasn't been that way since right when the park opened and we were chasing pennants. People are hungry for this. They're ecstatic with how things are going."

For a generation of Orioles fans, that's a new dynamic.

In the home dugout of the Howard High School baseball field — tucked in the back corner of the grounds, hard up against a line of trees that hardly dims the noise coming from Route 100 — Orioles fans no longer sit quietly. Three members of the Elkridge Hurricanes' 15-and-under Baltimore Metro Baseball league team bantered with teammates who favor the Yankees and Red Sox last Thursday before their game against the Severn Seminoles.

"Well, we're not in the cellar," C.J. Kilpatrick, the second baseman, said. "We're a few up on the Sox, too."

Designated hitter Chris Fleming, tall and thin and commanding, said simply: "This Orioles team is for real."

"We're just proud that we finally have a team like this," said Jake Franke, scheduled to pitch a few innings that night. "There's a lot more hype."

But then Mark Smith, the starter, jumped in.

"What there is," he said, "is more cocky Orioles fans."

Smith is a Boston Red Sox fan because his father is. Several players on the team root for the Yankees, thanks to family ties to New York or New Jersey. But others were never hooked by the Orioles and chose a favorite team based on championships and star players. In addition to being too young to remember the Orioles' last winning season, members of the Hurricanes also grew up in an era in which they could easily watch teams from across the major leagues on television or follow coverage of them on the Internet.

"I always tell them that they need to have some loyalty to their home team, through good and bad," Hurricanes coach Cliff Morris said. "There should be pride in where they're from. But that doesn't resonate. They can just jump to whoever is winning, whoever is best."

Morris is a Red Sox fan, owing to a childhood spent in New England, but he calls the Orioles his "second team." A youth-league coach for seven years, he's seen his players at least begin to identify with the Orioles. When Danny Bruno, the Hurricanes' clean-up hitter and catcher, lost a pop up in the sun, Morris challenged him to play more like Wieters.

"Some years there just wasn't anything to talk about with the local team," Morris said. "Now, they at least are excited about some of the players."

Morris' son, Kevin, said his friends have finally started following Orioles news: "Go to hangouts, and that's actually something people are talking about."

Promising reports on prospects like pitcher Dylan Bundy and shortstop Manny Machado have also galvanized the young Orioles fans, who rattled off stats from recent minor league games in Frederick and Bowie. Franke remains worried that the Orioles won't be able to compete with the Yankees long term — "They have too much money," he said — but the teammates were unanimous in the belief that fans their age would find the home team worth watching. Morris hopes it happens.

"You build the life-long bonds when you're young," he said. "That's when the games matter most to you, and later in life you always go back to that feeling. No team can go too long without giving that to their fans."

In a group of nine Severn Seminoles, only one said he was an Orioles fan. On the day second baseman Kevin Walter was born — May 29, 1997 — the Orioles were off. They'd beaten the Detroit Tigers 8-1 the night before, running starter Jimmy Key's record to 9-1. The Orioles' first three hitters — Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro — each hit two-run home runs. That team won the American League East and lost in the league championship series to Cleveland.

Only two times since then have the Orioles hit game No. 81 with a winning record, and both of those seasons are most remembered for the collapses that would follow. The 2005 team went from 44-37 to 74-88, the 2007 club from 42-39 to 68-93. So Walter feels like he's seen this before.

"I actually think they'll choke," he said. "They're so new to winning. They don't know how to control that feeling."

Walter's friends mostly root for teams that have won World Series titles over the last few years — like the Phillies, Yankees or Red Sox. "Those fans," he said, "they talk a lot. But what can I say back?

"I think it will take two or three years of winning for people to start really caring about the Orioles again."

Powell, though, is already convinced, and as the party roars around him he proclaims as much over and over.

"I do everything I can to make people believe in this club," he said. "Everybody is out there with their fingers crossed, saying, 'Let's hope this lasts. This isn't a dream.' I keep telling them this ballclub's for real and I really do think they are, even after this bit of mediocrity. I saw too much talent early in the year."




Orioles, then and now

2011Through July 22012
Fifth (14.5 games behind)PlaceSecond (six games behind)
Matt WietersAll-Stars*Wieters, Adam Jones, Jim Johnson

*Jason Hammel is one of five players fans can vote into the final spot on the American League roster