DURING the 1990 baseball season, the home team's management regularly flashed a more-than-meets-the-eye message on the stadium scoreboard: "You are truly fantastic fans and we appreciate that."
By all accounts the Orioles are making money hand over fist. Their attendance the past season -- close to 2.5 million (almost 30,000 per game) -- was little short of phenomenal for a fifth-place team in a relatively small market. They have a sweetheart deal on the current stadium and an even more attractive arrangement come the new one. Like all other major league franchises, they benefit from an almost embarrassingly lucrative television contract. All this, and they have the lowest payroll in baseball.
What we've known for some time about the Orioles -- that on the ledger sheets they're a legitimate pennant contender -- should be an important factor in the team's off-season decisions regarding things like player personnel, ticket prices and public relations.
Last week, the Orioles charitably announced that, for the time being at least, they were not going to raise ticket prices. It was a patronizing gesture, perhaps in response to the sour public reaction just about this time last year when the Orioles thumbed their noses at their loyal supporters by declaring a hefty hike in prices. The irony was sad but predictable: For the privilege of paying more, the fans in the stands got less. What used to be called "the bleachers," way out behind the foul poles in left and right fields, were now the "lower reserved grandstand"; tickets for students and senior citizens were "available for selected dates only"; and "general admission" was reduced to a few backless benches well beyond the bullpens.
The Orioles likewise have a lock on ticket selling: It's as illegal for a fan to sell tickets at less than face value as it is to scalp them.
The concessions in 1990 (revenues from which the Orioles get a healthy cut) also cost the consuming fan more than ever before. A night at the ballgame for a family of four could conservatively eat up over $50. Tote it up yourself, figuring low-end tickets at $7.50; hot dogs at $1.50; Cokes at $1.75; and popcorn at $2. That's not counting the luxury items like a bag of peanuts ($1.50 or $2.25), a pretzel ($1.50) or a small coffee (75 cents), which could easily up the ante enough to make Pop feel the pinch in his blue-collar pocketbook.
You could save considerably by bringing your own food and drink -- if you wanted to wait in line to have it inspected at one of the two gates designated for that purpose -- or by going to Frederick or Hagerstown, where the same ballgame food costs a lot less.
We don't know yet how much a 1991 Oriole hot dog will cost.
All of this might be mildly justified if the team were having trouble balancing its books. For fiscal 1990, though, whatever balancing act is needed will be one of public relations. The Orioles will preach prudence in hiring -- look at where a big payroll has gotten the New York Yankees -- and the high cost of competition at the major-league level.
The fans, of course, are primarily interested in competitiveness on the field. So they'll be looking closely at how the Orioles answer these questions:
Will they seek to replace Ron Kittle -- whose 1990 salary was less than half that of Phil Bradley, the man for whom he was traded in mid-season -- with another outfielder who can hit? (Unfortunately Kittle's run production was a lot less than half of Bradley's.)
Will they re-sign Mickey Tettleton, the hard-to-find switch-hitting catcher with power? Although he was unable to duplicate his stellar 1989 performance in 1990, Tettleton would probably command top dollar from a host of other teams.
Will they loosen the purse-strings to shore up other shaky positions, like a left-handed starting pitcher and a full-time third baseman, by entering the free-agent market?
Or, in the final analysis of their final year at Memorial Stadium, will they do little more than hold the line on ticket prices?
Kenneth Lasson a long-time Oriole fan, teaches at the University D of Baltimore School of Law.