Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy makes this throw to first in front… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Apparently, there is no pleasing you people.
The Orioles have been on a roll the past few weeks. They have climbed to the top of the American League wild-card standings and have inched surprisingly close to the first-place Yankees in the tough AL East. They have done it in ways so creative and counterintuitive that the rest of the baseball world considers their place among the top teams in the major leagues something of a mystery.
Of course, there is only one real mystery around here and that is the whereabouts of all the supposed Orioles fans who have been holding out for a winning team before returning to Camden Yards.
Just 10,995 showed up on Monday night for the opener of a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, who happen to be leading the AL Central right now and very possibly could be a playoff opponent if the Orioles continue along their merry way in this surprising season.
Sure, it was the first day of school for a lot of kids in the area, and you can string together all sorts of reasons why the O's drew their second-smallest home crowd of the year, but still, not even 11,000 fans showed up for a very important game against a highly competitive team just days before the start of the September stretch?
The excuse du jour when an announced 12,841 turned out Tuesday night was the ongoing preparations for this weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore, which has turned the Camden Yards Sports Complex into something of a fortress, with new fencing around the parking lots and giant race barriers lining all the access roads to the ballpark. It is a bit intimidating and that might explain why some fans decided to avoid the area this week, but the tiny crowds are just another symptom of a fan malaise that is going to take more than one exciting season to cure.
Attendance has improved year over year, and the O's are on pace to draw about 2 million fans in the ballpark's promotion-studded 20th anniversary celebration, but some of the numbers are curious. They seemed to be gaining steam early in the summer, averaging 32,522 fans per home game in June, but their per-game average declined in July (25,450) and again in August (22,278 through Monday).
Even though the Orioles have raised their national stature and are on track to have their first winning season since 1997, they obviously have a lot more work to do to get fans back in the habit of coming to the ballpark. Getting to the playoffs for the first time in this century would help a lot, but it might take another year or more of winning baseball to put a big dent in the hard-earned cynicism of Birdland's silent majority.
"We've got to keep winning and keep winning for a long time and make them believe,'' center fielder Adam Jones said.
Jones and his teammates are well aware that their efforts have gone unacknowledged — at least in person — by a huge segment of the Orioles' once-faithful, but they also are determined not to let that affect their attitude toward the loyal fans who do show up at the ballpark regularly.
"I came out of the dugout [Monday] and I thought, 'wow,'" Jones said. "But, hey, the people who are here, we're going to bust our tails for you all. We know a lot of other people are watching. We know the MASN ratings are good. This is still a baseball town. I understand the whole 14 years thing, but we're doing something that could be something real special, and we want the fans to be part of it."
If the Orioles continue to win, they will most certainly come, but never in the numbers that passed through the turnstiles of the ballpark when it was still an architectural revelation in the late 1990s. The opening of M&T Bank Stadium took a lot of entertainment revenue out of the market, and the arrival of the Nationals drew away a significant number of Washington area O's fans. And, with the way the Orioles played over the past 14 years, it wasn't too hard to convince them to go elsewhere.
Showalter applauded the intensity of Monday night's small crowd after the Orioles set a record by winning their 13th consecutive one-run game. He expressed the hope on Tuesday that more and more fans will see what the Orioles are doing this year and want to join in the excitement, but he never thought it would happen overnight.
"It would be pretty presumptuous on anybody's part to think that they're going to trust us that quickly,'' he said.
Jones would like standoffish fans to set aside the past and join this team in what he hopes will be a much brighter future.
"We're going to keep playing hard for whoever comes,'' Jones said. "We know the [TV] ratings are good, but the fans need to know their physical presence at Camden Yards is important to us."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app