Orioles reliever Matt Albers reacts after giving up a three-run… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
No one should be surprised that the Orioles set a record Monday night for the smallest crowd in the history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. They have had a succession of new lows periodically over the past few years, though there was something about Monday night that made it a more striking symbol of the baseball apocalypse that has taken place in Baltimore over the past decade or so.
Maybe it was the number — 9,129 — that got everybody's attention. The Orioles had never previously had a crowd in four figures in the 19-year existence of the ballpark. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the tiny attendance figure and the club's dismal early performance in this, a supposed turnaround season. Maybe it was the fact that it also was the smallest regular-season crowd anywhere in the major leagues so far in 2010, dipping just under Thursday night's crowd at Pittsburgh's PNC Park.
In short, it just looked really bad, even if it's hard to find much more significance in that particular number than in any of the series of 10,000-plus nights that previously held the dubious record.
The Orioles' crowd counts have been trending badly for years — 12 years to be exact. There is no question the franchise's string of losing seasons has been the major cause of the club's depressed attendance, but the short-term dip represented by Monday's game was the result of a number of factors so predictable that just about everyone paying attention knew that the small-crowd record was going to be smashed before the game began.
"There are several factors that obviously contributed to it,'' Orioles director of communications Greg Bader said. "Mondays in April are historically low. Tampa Bay in April is historically low. The second and third home games of the season are generally a couple of your smallest crowds, and since we opened on Friday and had some good weekend crowds, Monday was sort of like one of those second and third games."
To his credit, Bader didn't sidestep the most obvious factor — the one fans tend to look at first.
"And the team has not been playing well,'' he said, "which certainly contributes to the small walk-up."
The Orioles can give you all sorts of logical reasons. They also point to a liberal exchange policy that allows season-ticket holders to trade in less-attractive April games for nonprime games in the summer.
None of those reasons, however, changes the basic fact of this sorry matter. Camden Yards was once the only place to be on a spring or summer night in the 1990s. Now, it's the place where too many Orioles fans don't want to be anymore.
The Orioles have tried all sorts of things to change that. They've instituted bargain nights, student nights, T-shirt nights, you name it, but the only cure for what ails the fan following is a consistently competitive and successful team. With the Orioles in the throes of an ugly 1-7 start, including Tuesday night's 8-6 loss played before an announced 13,731, it's hard to see anything that looks like that on the horizon.
It's also fair to ask whether the Orioles shot themselves in the foot with their new policy this year of charging more for game-day tickets to encourage fans to buy their seats in advance. Bader does not believe, however, that the small turnout Monday night had anything to with the $1-$5 surcharge the Orioles have imposed on tickets that are sold on the day of the game.
"I do not,'' he said Tuesday afternoon. "We had very large walk-up crowds on Saturday and Sunday. There have been no complaints from fans. We have been very clear to advertise it. And I think you'll see a much larger walkup [Tuesday night] because it's a bargain night and it's a T-shirt night."
The Orioles do not expect overall attendance to drop this year. They expect it to be about the same as the past two years, though that's no great achievement. The Orioles drew more than 3.7 million in 1997 but drew barely half that in 2008 (1.95 million) and 2009 (1.91 million).
It's hard to go much lower than that when you consider that the season-ticket base is about 10,000 (the Orioles don't release the actual number) and the club gets very large crowds for the 18 home games against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. That's about 1.6 million right there, so they have to average only about 5,000 in walk-up and non-season-advance sales to get to 1.9 million.
"We believe it will even out,'' Bader said. "We expect about where we were last year, but that's assuming the club plays the way we expect it to play."
Right now, it's pretty hard to assume that, and you have to figure that the tiny crowds have an impact on the intensity of the home team.
"It's not much fun,'' veteran starting pitcher Kevin Millwood said, "but you can understand [the fans'] side of it, too. You've got to play good. If you win ballgames, they'll come."
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and with Brett Hollander on Tuesday and Thursday at six. Also, check out his blog "The Schmuck Stops Here" at http://www.baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
What you said
"It was so embarrassing, last night as a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, to see such poor fan turnout. I stayed until the end, because I felt that is what the team deserved."
— Evan Keyser, Canton
"Who is the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft because his future may be in Baltimore. That's a positive."
— Jon in Chicago (from The Schmuck Stops Here)
"This season was supposed to be about the ‘wins and losses' but apparently its just about the losses."
— Andrew (from The Schmuck Stops Here)
"Remember that 2 of the losses are squarely on [reliever Michael] Gonzalez and the team fought hard in both of those games."
— Jeff in Ohio (from The Schmuck Stops Here