With new park, city no longer jockeys for major-league position

John Steadman

May 27, 1992|By John Steadman

When Baltimore was demeaned by the cynics as a "nickel city," or that whistle stop between Philadelphia and Washington, the accusation was leveled that for it to draw a crowd to a sports event, other than a horse race, it was necessary to stage another horse race. An erroneous allegation, yet the fairy tale persisted.

Baltimore, of course, needs not make any apologies for the way it has supported major-league sports, including the Orioles and, when they were here, the Colts. The mood, or call it attitude, and that's all it was, has changed dramatically.

On Memorial Day, an old Baltimore sporting institution, the Pimlico Race Course, offered a special inducement at the box office. Come to the track and, if among the first 3,000 through the gates, you would receive a free ticket to an upcoming Orioles game.

Now the presumption about Baltimore's sports preference has made a mighty 180-degree turn. Racing is trading off baseball and there's nothing illicit or illegal about that. It merely points up how important the Orioles have become and the demand to see them in their new park.

When the team returns June 5, it will go over the 1 million figure in home attendance. Right now, the Orioles show 994,867 for 23 dates, or an average of 43,255 per game. Reaching the million mark will mean the club has gotten there quicker than all but two teams, the Toronto Blue Jays (twice) and Los Angeles Dodgers (four times), in major-league history.

The projection, if the Orioles hold to their present average, comes to an awesome 3.5 million for all of 1992. There have been 10 sellouts among the 23 games thus far. Crowd capacities change because there have been four occasions when tickets (around 15,000 total) were distributed to charitable organizations or as a reward for public service.

Let's hasten to point out another significant revelation. The Orioles already have surpassed seasonal counts for all of 1955, '56, '57, '58, '59, '61, '62, '63, '65, '67, '68, '72, '73, and '74. Also dwell upon the fact the Orioles, after a wait of 51 years, were restored to the American League in 1954 and drew 1,060,910. It was hailed as auspicious.

With all the euphoria associated with the Orioles' return to major-league status, back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the present team, in only two more appearances -- which represents the second game of the next homestand -- is going to exceed that first season total. It was a momentous year,

1954, when Baltimore shed its stigma of a minor-league outpost. There was parading through the downtown streets, yet it didn't translate to anything approaching what's going on now.

In 1992, the Orioles, although still early in the game, have gone far beyond all that. Furthermore, in 1958, when Baltimore hosted the All-Star Game, as it will next season, the crowd count for all of that year was 829,991. The All-Star Game creates a demand for seats that often has a residual influence on the regular season but that didn't happen back then.

Much of Baltimore's attendance increase can be attributed to Washington's being devoid of a franchise. This means southern Maryland and northern Virginia audiences must patronize the Orioles if they want to see major-league baseball. And, important, too, is because the new park is downtown, it cuts the trip to the game by half-an-hour. Another plus.

Rick Vaughn, the Orioles public relations director, says, "interest and attention is coming from just everywhere." Asked to point out specific areas, other than the Washington suburbs, that contribute to the influx, he answers, "Well, York [Pa.] has always been good. It has gotten even better. A radio station there, WSBA, has done a phenomenal marketing job.

"And the York Daily Record has a reporter at every game, home and away. That important. We also do well out of Wilmington and even from the general Philadelphia surroundings. It's all a tribute to the new park and, certainly, too, over the way the Orioles have been playing."

Cash registers ring, turnstiles spin and Baltimore's baseball attendance chart is losing all perspective with the past. Stop to consider it's within the realm of possibility that 1 million more than ever before, taking in all 38 previous years of the franchise, will pay to see them.

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