Will Orioles fans fly away at first Ravens sighting?

April 04, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As we live in perilous times in the city of Baltimore, with rampant crime and the frightening proliferation of Hensons, it's not easy to bring up one more problem, but here goes:

Will those 46,818 people who filled Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Opening Day keep coming back after the sighting of the first Ravens in the fall?

Peter Angelos, no innocent, looked around his big ballpark with mixed emotions as the season opened. Yes, he had the president of the United States at his side. Yes, his Orioles still seem to own the town. But with a $46 million player payroll, and a fragile local economy, what price ownership?

Six days ago, the new football team got itself a nickname. Soon, it will get itself some athletes. Yesterday, at their Owings Mills training facility, the Ravens prepared for the annual National Football League player draft, which commences in 16 days. The mere preparations for this event made the front page of this newspaper's sports section on a day otherwise given over to the Orioles 1996 opener.

Peter Angelos is a reader, and a rememberer, of Baltimore sports history. In all the years before Robert Irsay's arrival here, the football Colts owned the town's heart and the Orioles seemed a kind of emotional afterthought. Could it happen again?

In the first 20 years of the modern Orioles, they drew 1 million fans just eight times. In that era, their all-time high was 1,203,037 -- and that was 1966, when they won their first pennant. In the pennant-winning 1969, 1970 and 1971 seasons, they only reached the 1-million mark in the season's final week. Twice, they won divisional titles but failed to hit 1 million customers.

When they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight games, in 1966, and astonished the baseball world, they failed to fill Memorial Stadium for the final game of the World Series.

Everybody knew this was a football town, a Unitas-Marchetti-Donovan town, a Moore and Berry and Big Daddy town. The names go back 40 years, some of 'em, but their aura carried across the generations until Irsay arrived and began poisoning the atmosphere.

Simultaneous to Irsay's earliest alienations, the Orioles were finally touching the city's heart. Partly, it was the arrival of a new generation of players, Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan and Cal Ripken, and partly it was the guy out in Section 34, Wild Bill Hagy, who waved his big cowboy hat and finally made it cool to unbutton your emotions at a baseball game.

From Hagy came a new breed of Orioles fans. It wasn't just Wild Bill leading cheers from the upper deck, or strutting his stuff atop the Oriole dugout. It was an entire community taking its cue from him: Finally, it looked like real fun to go to a baseball game.

Home attendance, which averaged less than 15,000 a game in most years, suddenly jumped past 20,0000 and then past 25,000. In 1984, the summer after the Colts bolted town, it went to 26,918 a game, even though the Orioles were a flop on the field after winning the '83 World Series.

In the 12 years that followed, one dismal season following another on the diamond, attendance kept rising. Whatever the Orioles were, they were ours. At Camden Yards, attendance has topped 43,000 a game for four straight years.

(True, there was competition with the Canadian Football League for a couple of years. But their ticket prices aren't comparable to the National League's, and the words "Personal Seat Licenses" were never uttered by anyone in the CFL.)

But now the future has arrived.

In the old days, the days of both the Colts and the basketball Bullets, there was much talk of the Baltimore sports dollar: How far would it stretch? Clearly, not far enough to support three professional teams. The Bullets departed for Largo. Then Irsay stole away.

With the arrival of Cleveland's football team here to fill the autumn void, no one expects the Orioles to hold a monopoly on fans' hearts. Angelos, understanding this, decided the best way to make his team profitable was not to cut back expenses but increase spending. Make the club too attractive to ignore.

Will it work? Oriole Park is filled. But, where Memorial Stadium crowds roared from Section 34 outward, it still seems subdued at Camden Yards, as though people are too polite to cut loose their emotions in such spiffy new surroundings.

Are we, at heart, really a football town? Peter Angelos' money says otherwise. But, as he looks around his packed ballpark, as he awaits the arrival of jackhammers and cranes to build a football stadium next door, as he scans the sports pages and sees "Ravens" next to the baseball stories, he knows this could be the final summer of his full content.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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