Orioles find themselves at a crossroads on Opening Day

April 04, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THEIR final season of futility before becoming the 1954 Baltimore Orioles, the ragged St. Louis Browns baseball team attracted roughly 300,000 fans across an entire summer. Several innings into their last home game, the pitiful team ran out of baseballs, and pitcher Duane Pillette had to throw batting-practice balls. The next winter, when Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro struck a bargain with Major League Baseball to bring the Browns here, he was issued one stern order: Make sure they fill the new Memorial Stadium with more than 300,000 fans. The entire club cost just $2,475,000, thus apparently assuring enough money left to purchase a complete supply of baseballs.

Well, times change.

Today, for $2,475,000, the Orioles might purchase the services of a decent utility infielder. At Oriole Park, they've often drawn 300,000 fans over the course of a single week. And yet, things being how they are, the Orioles have approached today's Opening Day with the kind of financial anxiety unseen since the days when they were winning pennant after pennant but were life-and-death to reach 1 million spectators a year.

Now they top 2.5 million routinely but worry when they don't top 3 million. Now they haven't had a winning season since 1998, and face unwanted competition from Washington, which hasn't even had a winning game since the first Nixon administration. The Nationals are here, and their arrival has brought out every pugnacious street fighter's instinct of Peter Angelos, and every underdog instinct of a city that never quite casts off its historic inferiority complex.

This has been a winter of vague discontent, eased somewhat last week when Angelos cut a deal with Major League Baseball for majority ownership of a new regional sports network. Never mind that original $2,475,000 that brought the St. Louis Browns here. Today, the TV deal is said to ensure that the ballclub Angelos and friends purchased a dozen years ago - for $173 million - cannot sell for less than about $365 million if Angelos ever decides to take a hike.

What's more, it might even assure that the Orioles can play baseball in a reasonably approximate financial league with the Yankees and Red Sox.

Last winter offered no such assurances. With Washington suddenly crashing the party, and with Orioles preseason ticket purchases down 12 percent from a year ago, and with broadcast contracts threatened, the ballclub seemed reluctant to chase big-money free agents.

That reluctance seemed to shake an old dread not only among baseball followers, but the body politic. We are a community that puts baseball at the heart of our municipal self-perception. Oriole Park, after all, is the stadium that helped create and sustain the continuing downtown renaissance that includes the Inner Harbor, the west-side commercial revival, the resurgent restaurants and bars near the ballpark that fling open their doors late into summer nights, the renewal of waterfront residential neighborhoods - as well as the opening, next month, of the new sports museum at the old Camden Yards railroad station next to the ballpark.

You threaten the Orioles, you imply a lurking danger to a community.

So today begins a kind of crossroads season for Baltimore. For the first time in more than three decades, the Orioles have front-door competition for fans, and for broadcast dollars. And, in a time (and a league) when the Yankees and Red Sox are bankrolled by enormous regional fan bases, and enormous TV coverage, Baltimore has lost a significant part of its region but at least gained some broadcast leverage.

The club braces for the new season in the shadow of steroid controversy (Mr. Sosa and Mr. Palmeiro, meet your congressmen), off-the-field troubles (the lunkheads Sidney Ponson and Eric Dubose, and the departed bonehead Matt Riley), and those reports of drooping ticket sales.

The Orioles are hoping Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro still have gas in their tanks, and will draw people to the park while the Nationals enjoy a honeymoon period and pull from a D.C. metro area that has grown enormously since the old Senators slipped out of town while everybody had their backs turned.

The Orioles know about such things. After that snowy March night in 1984 when the Colts bolted, the Orioles had the town to themselves for a long time. Loyalties deepened. The club had some dreadful years (everybody still remember that nightmare 0-21 start in '88?) but continued to fill the park.

Memories carried us through the rough years. We had Brooksie and Frank and Palmer, and then Murray and Flanny and Singy, and the continuing odyssey of Ripken. These Washington fans, the older ones, strain for memories of the immortal Jose Valdivielso and Herbie Plews. The younger fans have memories - of a team up in Baltimore. They have to initiate a whole new history down in D.C., and a whole new home-team culture.

But what about the old loyalties? In the years since the Senators left, the Washington area was said to supply roughly 20 percent of the Orioles' gate. That's half a million tickets a year, easy. The Orioles were the best Washington had, summer after summer.

Are those loyalties completely cast aside after a third of a century? The Orioles don't know - and therefore don't know how deep a cut in attendance they might suffer if the coming summer looks anything like the previous seven.

Half a century after their metamorphosis from the old St. Louis Browns, the Orioles know they'll have enough baseballs to finish a game. Maybe, even with Washington back in the league, they'll hold onto enough fans as well.

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