Build it, they will come?
The Orioles haven't built anything yet. Not a stadium. Certainly not a winner. Not even an interesting team to watch. And yet they come. God, they come. Even Kevin Costner comes. It's like every day is sale day at the mall. Like every night is free beer night.
They comes by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. On their last homestand, even as the Orioles were getting swept by the Oakland A's, they were drawing 141,000-plus for the three games.
That's the question of the day. The question, Jeopardy fans, used to be: Why Not? Remember that? It was the fun season of '89, the only fun season around these parts in recent memory.
But still they come. An average of better than 32,000 show up for each game, which, at last glance, translated into the sixth-highest average in the major leagues despite the second-worst record in the game.
What does this say about us? Do we lack the ordinary powers of discrimination? Can't we tell good from bad (if we can't, that would explain prime-time TV)? Or don't we care?
Do we just love baseball that much? Are we involved in a George Will-style love-in? If so, do we all have to wear bow ties?
Or are we simply bored? Is the bridge to the beach that crowded? Has the Inner Harbor finally lost its appeal? Did the Aquarium shut down and nobody tell me?
I asked some people why the Orioles, from their position deep in sixth place, seem likely to draw 2.5 million fans this season. The theories were, as they say, wide-ranging, including these:
* Construction on Falls Road blocked easy escape routes.
* Fans hoped to bump into the queen. Or Cal Ripken Sr. Or both.
* There was a rumor an Orioles ticket was worth a dollar at your neighborhood pitch and putt.
* It cheers people up to stumble onto someone with problems worse than their own.
* We just had to see this team with our own eyes to believe it.
Actually, the explanation is disarmingly simple. And it has little to do, though you might have guessed it, with Baltimore's having lost a football team and fearing the baseball team might be next. This is no exercise in civic duty. This is something more basic.
And it's this: People love to go. Tired, old Memorial Stadium is a happening place. It's a hot date. It's the place to take the boss if you want to make a good impression. It's the place to see and to be seen. Some people even go for the food.
It's a love affair. It's romance. And the fans are so forgiving. They might boo Juan Bell, but not so loudly as to really offend. You don't see any signs suggesting we ring Bell's chimes. I can remember when Eddie Murray used to say the fans made the Orioles nervous. Was he nuts? The only thing the Orioles players have to worry about at Memorial Stadium is figuring out a polite way to turn down dinner invitations.
I've never seen anyplace else where the home team can be in sixth place, losing by seven runs in the eighth inning and when one Oriole gets on base, the fans begin to clap for a rally. Why would any player want to go anywhere else? Most, of course, do not.
The strange thing about this phenomenon is that in the Orioles' glory days, back in the late '60s and early '70s, when they were consistently the best team in baseball and among the most exciting, they were lucky to draw half of what they'll draw this season, which, despite any slogans you might have heard, we should little note nor long remember.
In the late '70s and early '80s, another good time for the Orioles, attendance turned around. And it stayed turned. There are hundreds of great nights worth remembering from the Orioles' days at Memorial Stadium, but my favorite will always be Fantastic Fans Night in May '88 when a sellout crowd went completely nuts for a team that came home with a 1-23 record. The Orioles drew more than 1.6 million that year for a team that is generally believed to have been one of the worst in history. And now they may draw 2.5 million for one that is simply mediocre.
And wait till next year. If the Orioles field any kind of team at the new Camden Yards stadium, they should draw 3 million fans, and at significantly higher ticket prices.
There are those who suggest that by coming to the ballpark to support an uncompetitive team it allows Orioles owner Eli Jacobs the luxury of sitting back and refusing to spend the money required to build a winner. Maybe they're right. But I don't think the argument is going to keep anyone away. The Orioles are the only game in town. And they play the one game that everyone -- I mean everyone -- wants to see.