Fan belief in Orioles deepens as club reaches another midseason in contention

Interest in club apparent from greater crowds, higher television ratings, All-Star voting

July 05, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Maureen Hall cradled the bulbous, papier-mache mask with its black feathers and orange beak. The temperature had pushed past 90 degrees, but the 6th-grade teacher from Parkville didn't hesitate to pull it over her head as onlookers snapped photos of her and the surrounding orange-clad legion of Orioles fans.

This was how summer was supposed to feel for a Baltimore baseball fan. The fellowship reminded Hall of childhood evenings in Waverly, where she could see the lights of Memorial Stadium from her back porch and hear the crowd chanting "Eddie, Eddie."

"It just reminds me of the old days," she said. "Just that magic."

Despite Friday night's ninth-inning loss to the Yankees, the club's success in 2012 and through the midpoint of this season has stirred something in Baltimore fans that lay dormant through long years of losing. Hall and others talked about it last week as they lined up outside a Modell's sporting goods store at 10 a.m., drawn to a "Vote Orange" rally by the chance to meet Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth.

If last year's playoff run felt like an unexpected gift from the fates, the orange-and-black faithful have now started to believe they're entering a new golden age for a franchise that was baseball's best from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

There are hard-and-fast ways to measure this at the mid-point of the 2013 season, which the Orioles reached during last weekend's home sweep of the New York Yankees.

Attendance at Camden Yards is up more than 13 percent at a time when it's down almost 4 percent across baseball. Orioles television broadcasts are the top-rated program in the Baltimore area for adults 18-49. The club owns 3.3 percent of the U.S. retail market for baseball merchandise, more than double its share through the same point last year, according to industry analyst SportsOneSource.

With All-Star teams to be announced today, three Orioles are on track to start the July 16 game in New York, a total that would tie a club record last reached in 1997. The Orioles bolstered voting in part through rallies such as the one in Parkville.

"We're seeing all the measurables in our favor, showing that growth," said Orioles spokesman Greg Bader. "So there's definitely a greater interest and a greater passion and excitement this time this year."

But it goes beyond numbers. The Orioles are back in Baltimore's bloodstream. You can see it in the proliferation of orange "O" stickers on city cars, hear it in workplace chats about last night's game.

Fans no longer talk about this as a plucky bunch of faceless youngsters. They have formed powerful attachments to individual players — Manny Machado, the baby-faced doubles machine; J.J. Hardy, the cerebral captain of the infield; Chris Davis, the reclamation project who dumps pitcher mistakes deep beyond the fence.

Jeff Caslin, 57, can't help but draw connections between these players and the Birds he grew up cheering. In Machado, he sees Brooks Robinson's dashing play at third base. In Hardy, he sees Mark Belanger's cool mastery of shortstop. In Davis, he sees the left-handed might of Boog Powell.

The Fallston resident ran into Powell at Camden Yards on a recent evening and shared the Davis comparison. "Yeah, but I was faster," Powell cracked.

"That's the fun part for my generation, being able to see those similarities," Caslin said, standing next to Hall at the rally in Parkville. "To see this change happen over the course of last year and into this year has been so much fun."

For Hall, the fun has come from seeing her students at Parkville Middle get excited about decorating their classroom like the Orioles dugout, from watching her 12-year-old daughter finally understand mom's fussing about the glory days of Orioles Magic.

"People have that pride," Hall said. "It's nice to see that. We haven't had that in a long time."

As recently as 2011, it would have been hard to imagine a crowd of 200 coming out during work hours to celebrate the Orioles. But the "Vote Orange" rallies, designed to spur excitement and encourage All-Star voting, have drawn similar crowds across the area in recent weeks. They're an extension of the "Buckle Up" rallies the club organized as the Orioles pushed for the playoffs last fall.

The gatherings — combined with offers of limited-edition shirts, autographed balls and player meet-and-greets for serial voters — have convinced fans to stuff the ballot boxes for the All-Star game. The Orioles have never had more than three players voted in as All-Star starters, but Davis, Hardy and outfielder Adam Jones are all on track, with Nick Markakis just behind for the last outfield spot.

Fans are also opening their wallets for merchandise, especially the jerseys of young stars such as Machado, said Joe Linn, a district manager for Modell's who oversees stores in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

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