Fans' early flight leaves O's with empty-nest syndrome

April 01, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

QUESTION: IF it's Opening Day and there is no one to watch it, is it really Opening Day?

Before the 13-minute snowstorm that halted play in the third inning, there were a lot of empty seats at Camden Yards. After the snow passed, about 15,000 to 20,000 fans had left.

When the Orioles had finally beaten the Cleveland Indians, 6-5, yesterday in a 3-hour, 45-minute marathon, Camden Yards was three-quarters empty. There were more fans at the reunion of old Dunbar High basketball players last year.

You can understand the fans who left late in the game, but you have to wonder about those who left early and what this stadium is going to look like late in the season once the Orioles are out of contention.

You don't have to be Nostradamus to know that the Orioles aren't going to be contenders this season. Actually, you might be able to take that a step further. They could end up being the worst team in the major leagues with their top three players being Rodrigo Lopez, Jorge Julio and a Player to Be Named, and with no big-name power hitter in the lineup.

There wasn't much of a buzz around town about this team before Opening Day, and Orioles management had to be disappointed with the quick exits yesterday. A contending team and the novelty of a new season should have kept fans around for at least five to six innings, but this mass exit was about as quick as war correspondent Peter Arnett's firing by NBC.

The snow came down heavy, but it turned out to be light stuff.

But still, it was enough to cause right fielder Jay Gibbons to lose a fly ball among the big flakes in the third inning and allow one run to score and eventually another on a sacrifice fly. Enough to force about 10,000 fans to run inside for cover, then not to return to the game.

Now, that's what really concerns me. They didn't come back on Opening Day for hot dogs, beers and baseball. What is going to happen on those dark days of summer when there is absolutely nothing to play for?

Or are those dark days here now because of a team that hasn't had a winning season since 1997 and doesn't have much of a shot at one again this year?

Diehard fans always hang around. Green Bay fans never deserted the Packers on the Frozen Tundra. Minnesota Vikings fans never left coach Bud Grant alone in a snowstorm. Orioles fans wanted no part of snow ball.

Or is it that some fans just have a passing interest in the Orioles, who have become a stopgap in between the end of Maryland's basketball season and Ravens training camp?

The old Orioles fans would have stayed. Not the corporate ones now, but the ones who had passion. They would have had fun with yesterday's game. Some mad man would have taken off his shirt. Another goofball would have been in shorts. Only a few remained after the third inning and for the entire game. Those who stayed around cheered the loudest when the snow came down the hardest.

They didn't see a great game, but one that was entertaining, snow and all. It was a game in which 21 runners were left on base and six errors were committed. The Orioles were inept in the early innings, and the Indians were just as inept in the later innings.

It was a combination of this being the first game of the season and the chilly weather.

"It was pretty weird," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "It was kind of warm in [pre-game] introductions and got so cold, you could hardly breathe. Cold weather doesn't do anything for you. It's especially tough for pitchers, because their hands and fingers get slick and the ball gets slick."

Orioles center fielder Gary Matthews said: "I'm a California guy, not used to weather this cold. The ball was hard to see because the visibility was about zero. It was tough to see coming off the bat when it was snowing. But it was nice to come back to Baltimore and get the season underway."

It started off as a good Opening Day, even if the game wasn't sold out. The Orioles had tributes for late pitcher Dave McNally, as well as pitcher Steve Bechler, who died early in spring training.

But soon the snowstorm came, and the fans left Opening Day.

And you have to wonder if these were the old Orioles, or even a contending Orioles team, how many fans would have stayed?

And how many will still be around at the end of this season?

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