Exasperated O's fans deserve better, on and off field

September 05, 2006|By Raymond Daniel Burke

If you grew up loving baseball and cherishing the way it was played by the Baltimore Orioles, these dog days of summer are filled with sheer anguish and frustration. The "Oriole Way" that once produced 24 winning seasons out of 26, and a palpable spiritual bond between a city and its worthy team, has dissolved into history amid a disheartening run of ineptitude that, without a remarkable September turnaround, is about to produce a ninth consecutive losing year.

This accumulating record of failure, and the manner in which it has been achieved, has so ruptured fan relations that the only late-season rally being contemplated this year is a protest rally being promoted by a sports talk-radio station. That exercise is conceived not only as a show of passion for Orioles baseball but also as a communal denunciation of team management. Indeed, the stated goal is nothing less than to encourage the sale of the team to new ownership. Such is the state of exasperation of Orioles fans.

This sentiment is representative of the thousands of passionate Baltimoreans who grew up in the embrace of a baseball team that was shared across generations, neighborhoods, social classes and educational backgrounds.

It is the stuff of community cohesiveness, and the means by which sport has the capacity to serve as unifier and equalizer.

These are fans unable to fathom how a franchise with a magnificent and much-copied ballpark, and a fan base that annually produced attendance of more than 3 million, could have become a team hopelessly unable to compete with its East Coast rivals, that all but acknowledges it now has to overpay to attract free-agent talent.

Like a catechism of discontent, fans recite a list of mournful departures, including pitcher Mike Mussina, manager Davey Johnson, general managers Pat Gillick and Frank Wren, and announcer Jon Miller, and a host of other management decisions and indecisions that have combined to create the perception of an out-of-touch organization in disarray.

The failure to come to an agreement with the city of Rochester, ending a 45-year relationship for the team's AAA affiliate, and the lack of any progress with Florida officials toward the creation of a modern spring training facility are emblematic of a community-relations disconnect that shrouds the team with aloofness. The lack of any reference to Baltimore on the road jerseys or on any team logo or merchandise fuels the image of an organization that has lost connection with its roots.

The state of the team and its relationship with the community cry out for change. Here are seven suggestions:

Although there appears to be no inclination to sell the team, ownership needs a new public face. It should reassume the position of civic institution and present a spokesperson with the credentials of a lifelong fan who is able to articulate the team's positions in a credible voice that connects with the community. Putting someone such as respected and likable minority owner Steve Geppi out front would go a long way to repairing ownership's image.

Get in touch with where you came from. It is simply preposterous that Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken are not a huge part of the team's everyday persona. They are golden public relations assets that are being utterly wasted.

Put Baltimore back in the team name. Yes, it is a business that wants a broad reach, but it is also a business that can succeed only if the hometown folks really feel that they are part of it all.

Get into the community. That means star players appearing regularly at community events (like the recent Brian Roberts fundraiser at ESPN Zone) and a presence in places such as the outstanding Ripken facility in Aberdeen. And you could learn a lot by watching the Ravens.

Speaking of the Ravens, stop acting as if they do not exist and embrace what is a no-brainer of a joint marketing opportunity.

Invest heavily in a farm and scouting system that grows its own major-leaguers, put the AAA affiliate in a sensible mid-Atlantic location, and bring the major- and minor-league camps together into a state-of-the-art spring training facility.

Lastly: SPEND! There is no salary cap in baseball. You have your own sports network now. You have a wonderful ballpark begging to be filled with fans that bleed orange and black rather than wear Yankee blue. As the first half of 2005 proved, if you cannot be the Yankees, you can be the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins or Oakland A's, and compete with consistent pitching, solid defense and offense buoyed by the confidence of not having to overcome pitching deficiencies.

You have to fill glaring holes at first base, left field and the top of the rotation, and in a disaster of a bullpen. Moreover, you need to make a huge splash simply to restore credibility with fans, players and the baseball world. The names are out there - Zito, Schmidt, Mussina, Soriano, Lee, Garciaparra. Do what you have to do.

The message being invoked around town is this: "We love this game and our team. We feel as though it has been taken away from us, and we want it back." The honest fulfillment of that request holds the possibility of creating a new golden age for both the team and its hometown.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a Baltimore law firm. His e-mail is rdburke@ober.com.

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