O's attendance carries with it an empty feeling

April 20, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE RED SOX are in town to play the Orioles tonight and tomorrow night at Camden Yards, which means, first of all, that players who get anywhere near the stands had better watch out.

It was a Sox fan, remember, who supposedly bopped Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield during a game at Fenway Park last week. And that fan is on the loose after his 2005 season tickets were revoked earlier this week.

He could easily turn up here for a chance to see his beloved team up close and personal.

If the sparse crowds that watched the Orioles play the Tigers at Camden Yards the past two nights are any indication, he would have no trouble obtaining seats close enough to the field to take another swipe at a player.

The front row, his favorite spot, was wide-open last night.

It won't be so open tonight, of course; the ballpark probably will be close to full again with the Red Sox in town, just as it was full when the Yankees were around last weekend.

Expect to find giddy Sox fans everywhere, still basking in their team's World Series victory last fall. (Did you hear about it? Either way, they'd be happy to fill you in -- and will.)

All of which raises an interesting question: If the Orioles have reached the point where they need glamorous opposition in the visitors' dugout to draw anything more than piffle, how many fans are actually coming to see the Orioles?

Maybe we shouldn't ask. It was beyond disappointing to see so few people salted around the park the past two nights. It was downright startling.

The weather was splendid. The Orioles were in first place, coming off that euphoric weekend sweep of the Yankees. For the first time in years, they're sending out signals that they have the potential to put together something real.

What a strange time to have a small-market moment.

But that's precisely what they had, setting a record for the smallest crowd in park history (16,301) Monday night, and then attracting just 1,708 additional fans last night.

There were so few fans on the premises last night that when Sammy Sosa completed his traditional sprint to right field before the top of the first, he looked up and saw, oh, maybe 20 fans in the section closest to the scoreboard.

Wrigley Field was never that empty, was it, Sammy?

When did Camden Yards become Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field?

Sure, there are plenty of explanations. Early-season weeknight games seldom draw large crowds. The low-profile Tigers, winners of 43 games in 2003, are hardly enticing. And of course, the dreaded Nationals were playing down the road both nights.

Still. Fifteen major league games were played Monday night, and the crowd at Camden Yards was the fourth smallest. Only those in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Kansas City were smaller.

Some company.

Remember the days when you had to know someone to get a ticket to an Orioles game? Or when longtime fans complained that they couldn't get in?

It wasn't that long ago. As recently as 2000, the Orioles still averaged more than 40,000 fans a game.

But no more. Unless the Sox or Yankees are in town, there are -- as the old saying goes -- plenty of good seats available.

What happened? The Orioles have long said a team in Washington would cause them enormous harm at the gate, and if anything, the back-to-back tiny crowds effectively argued the point.

(Personally, I think the 24,003 the Nationals drew Monday night was more alarming. That was below the major league average that night. Shouldn't a city that has waited 34 years for major league baseball be immune from the attendance doldrums?)

But while conceding that the Nationals are having some impact, I still think the Orioles' seven straight losing seasons have cut the deepest into their ticket-buying public.

Too many real fans have been turned off or are waiting for the team to keep playing winning ball for longer before they come back.

From their attendance peak in 1997 through 2004, the Orioles lost roughly a million fans off their season ledger. But while that's a palpable decline, it's a wonderful compliment to the fans that they still bought 2.7 million tickets last season. That's more than many teams draw in winning seasons.

The meager crowds of the past two nights are evidence that a problem persists. If the fans didn't come back after the sweep of the Yankees last weekend, they're obviously still waiting for something more. And it isn't Sammy Sosa.

They're waiting for a longer run of better baseball, for a sign that it's safe to come out again after all those shellackings.

Seven years of losing tends to have that effect on people.

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