Orioles gain D.C. market, but lose decibels of fervor

July 16, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At Sabatino's in Little Italy on Friday, the man at the lunchtime table raised a glass of red wine and declared, "The Orioles have the best fans in baseball." The man was Peter Angelos. He was thinking about the 45,000 souls who fill his ballpark every game. He was thinking about more than 3 million fans who show up every year, through victory and galling defeat and apparent player indifference.

He was not thinking about the thing that happened last weekend, when the Yankees came to town and all signs of fan emotion seemed to carry accents out of the Bronx and Manhattan, and Queens and maybe even Staten Island.

By the sixth inning of Sunday afternoon's dismal series finale, such emotions drove Joe Foss, the Orioles' vice chairman of business and finance, to the breaking point. What was going on here? New Yorkers outshouting Baltimoreans? Yankee fans raising brooms in the air to celebrate a sweep? If Baltimoreans attempted such a gesture at Yankee Stadium, they'd be beaten with them.

"Based on the location of so many of the Yankee fans, [the tickets] are obviously coming from Orioles season-ticket holders who resold those tickets to Yankees fans," Foss told a group of reporters. "We would hope that our fans, when they are unable to use their tickets, would sell their tickets to people in the Baltimore-Washington area who would love to see the games."

Foss' frustration is understandable but misguided. The Orioles, strictly on merit, were in the midst of losing their fourth straight to New York and waving bye-bye to a pennant -- and prompting last night's move of Cal Ripken to third base, where he hadn't started in 14 previous summers. Orioles fans, partly out of gloom and partly out of habit, were sitting on their hands.

It's what they do at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and they've been doing it since the place opened. Where is Wild Bill Hagy when we need him? Where's the adrenalin that came out of a place at Memorial Stadium called Section 34? It must have gotten lost somewhere between 33rd Street and South Baltimore.

At the old ballpark, the energy instigated by Hagy lifted an entire populace. At the new place, you have patrons who put down their wine coolers only to glance at their Wall Street Journal. On the night Ripken caught the ghost of Lou Gehrig last summer, I had a seat behind home plate. A foul pop drifted back and landed a few rows behind me, where a guy was chatting with someone -- probably his stockbroker -- on a portable phone. He caught the foul pop in one hand while holding his phone with the other. He never for an instant interrupted his phone conversation.

From the earliest days of Edward Bennett Williams' ownership, the Orioles made a calculation that made great sense economically and none emotionally: They wooed the Washington market for all it was worth.

The Orioles now estimate maybe 20 percent of their ticket-buyers come from the Washington-Virginia-D.C. suburban area. It's nice that their money supports the ballclub, but these folks leave their emotions back in Montgomery County. With them, Orioles baseball isn't blood so much as a pleasant diversion or a business schmooze.

When Foss' complaints were printed in yesterday's Sun, a former Orioles official called here and declared the following:

"He thinks our fans are selling tickets to New Yorkers? Who does he think Washington people are? They're transplanted New Yorkers. They're people who left New York and came down to Washington to work for the government. Or they're the corporate box holders whose home office is in New York. You ever get on 95 on a weekend and see all the cars with Virginia tags driving up to New York? That's their home. And those are the people who've been getting Orioles tickets. The Orioles are the closest team, but the Yankees are their home team."

The other day, Peter Angelos walked into his suite at Camden Yards, where an aide approached to tell him about an airplane over the ballpark, trailing a message about support for major league baseball -- in Virginia.

Angelos showed no emotion. But all talk of Washington-area baseball sends a chill into those who live and die by the dollar. If D.C.-area fans had baseball closer to home, would they desert Baltimore? If they did, would their seats be filled by Baltimore-area fans currently locked out?

The Orioles executives don't know the answer, but maybe they shouldn't worry so much. Their ballclub seems to take its cue from the stands, drifting placidly through lazy summer evenings. It's a bunch of polite fellows playing for a gentle crowd. Maybe a little more fire in the stands would translate to the playing field. Maybe a new Virginia team would open seats here for hometown Baltimoreans, and let a Virginia ballclub worry about so many Yankee fans showing up at their games.

And maybe, in the aftermath of their lost weekend, the Orioles should be relieved that fans sat silently, instead of expressing what they really felt.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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