Optimism abounds as O's try to bring baseball excitement back to Baltimore

Fans, jazzed about Showalter and new players, seem more enthused than they have in years

April 04, 2011|Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The sign looms large, guarding I-395 as the traffic rolls past Baltimore's football and baseball stadiums.

"This is Birdland," it proclaims in giant letters. The man beside the slogan, with a bat clamped over his shoulders, looks deadly serious in his mission to make Baltimore a baseball town once more.

That guy, Orioles manager Buck Showalter, has embraced his quest to stir the kind of baseball passion which overwhelmed area fans in 1983 or 1997.

"I think we probably have a lot of people kind of sitting there in wait-and-see [mode]," Showalter says. "We have to play better, get some of the people back that kind of got off of us. I've said a million times, it's our responsibility."

It has been more than a decade since local fans turned to the Orioles, who open their season Friday in Tampa Bay and make their home debut Monday, as a primary source of sports inspiration. But with the Ravens locked out and memories fresh of a strong close to the 2010 season, might the club be poised to paint the town black and orange?

"The city is absolutely juiced over the advent of a competitive Orioles team this season," says Mike Gibbons, director of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

Gibbons notes that 500 tickets for the museum's Opening Day party, which used to sell steadily but hardly in a rush, were snapped up in two days this year.

Mark Viviano, who hosts a daily sports talk show on 105.7 FM, says fans have jumped on him for speaking too cautiously about the club's chances for 2011.

"People are saying, 'Don't downplay this; we're going to be good,' " Viviano says. "In the past, people would say I was too optimistic, but now, they're saying I'm not optimistic enough."

The radio host says the tone brightened as soon as the club started its 34-23 run under Showalter last summer. Hopes inflated further when Vladimir Guerrero, one of the great sluggers of his generation, signed in the offseason.

Orioles Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken, a major part of the club's last run of success in the mid-1990s, noticed the uptick in enthusiasm. "Human nature is such that when things don't go well for a long time, there's a not a great connectivity to baseball," Ripken says. "But you could feel the enthusiasm last year, down the stretch. We haven't had that for awhile."

Jayson Hill, a diehard fan from Pasadena, says out-of-town friends have contacted him via Facebook to arrange plans to visit Camden Yards and see the "new look" Orioles.

"Baltimore is abuzz with baseball fever again," Hill says. "The new stacked lineup and young pitching staff have people excited for the first time in many years."

After 13 straight losing seasons, the Orioles are trying hard not to oversell expectations. They purposely did not change their marketing campaign in the offseason to intimate that playoff contention was near.

"As of now, we don't want to guarantee anything more than we know we can deliver," says club spokesman Greg Bader.

That means they're pitching a still-lovely ballpark with revamped concessions and a team that's still trying to rebuild on the field.

But club officials aren't deaf or blind to the building excitement. Bader says he's optimistic that the Orioles can draw 2 million fans for the season after falling to 1.73 million last year, the lowest since the club opened Camden Yards in 1992. The club raised single-game ticket prices an average of $3 in the offseason. And Bader says that if the team jumps to a hot start, attendance projections could improve further.

"We are seeing some tangible business results that lead us to believe there is a sense of optimism," he says.

Baltimore fans have fallen into a familiar psychology during the past 10 years. They allow themselves a touch of hope around Opening Day but come June, with the Orioles generally out of contention, turn to NFL training camp and another Ravens run to the playoffs.

That dynamic seems less set in stone this year.

Economist Anirban Basu says that if the Orioles play well and the Ravens remain locked out, "You could see a real shift in emphasis to the Orioles."

"That could really mitigate the economic effects of losing football games," he says.

"I know many people with Ravens season tickets but no one with O's season tickets," Hill says. "I'm thinking that might start to change if this team does what they're capable of. With the NFL lockout I think the area is in full-fledged baseball mode for the first time since the Ravens came to Baltimore."

Of course, such talk is probably premature. The NFL has more than five months to sort through its labor issues, and the Orioles still have a lot to prove on the field.

"It's all about winning," says Jeffrey Katzen, owner of Baltimore Sports & Novelty, an Owings Mills memorabilia shop. "The Orioles buzz is alive a little bit more than last year but still it is not the excitement the Ravens give to Baltimore. Some people say the Orioles have to produce, especially in April to make believers."

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