The Orioles have their best day of the season, and winning again is only part of the story as big crowds return to Camden Yards
Once upon a time, it was the toughest ticket in all of baseball. Yes, tougher than Fenway Park, tougher than Wrigley Field, tougher than anywhere. To attend a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards meant planning weeks in advance, or finding a friend of a friend who might sell you a couple. Between 1992 and 2000, the Orioles led the American League in attendance four times and were second five times. They drew more than 3.6 million fans four times and never fewer than 3 million with the exception of the strike-shortened 1994 season.
One of the saddest sights in baseball these last few years has been seeing highlights of a nearly empty Camden Yards, but that’s one of the prices franchises pay for 14 consecutive losing seasons. Attendance declined from a high of 3.7 million in 1997 to 1.76 million last season. Now with the Orioles cruising along at 29-17, with them playing with energy, with young guys, with one of the game’s best managers having instilled a completely different mindset in the clubhouse, the big crowds are returning to Birdland.
According to my colleague Brittany Ghiroli, the Orioles drew 28,954 for their 8-2 victory over the Royals Friday night. Best of all, that number included nearly 11,000 walk-up tickets purchased, a new stadium record. There’s still work to be done. Their average of 21,949 would be the third-lowest in the ballpark’s 21 seasons, but it’s a start. If the Orioles are as good as they appear to be, this will be a fun summer in Baltimore.
Baseball is better off when the Orioles are really good. This is one of the game’s iconic franchises. From Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken, the Orioles were once one of baseball’s smartest and most efficient franchises, a franchise that defined doing things the right way.
When I moved to Baltimore in 1984, I learned the importance of having homegrown players. I saw it later with the Astros, who went to the playoffs six times in a nine-year period between 1997 and 2005. When the Orioles would summon minor leaguers in those days, they were, in a sense, already teammates with the veteran players.
They’d made many of the same minor league stops and had many of the same instructors, especially Cal Ripken Sr., who was largely responsible for something that came to be known as The Oriole Way. There was a top-to-bottom way of doing everything, from taking cutoff throws to doing rundown drills to doing defensive alignments. It was a physical thing and a confidence thing, but it was most of all a mindset.
“It’s great to be young and an Oriole,” Eddie Murray would chirp. If that sounded like a cliche, it wasn’t. The Orioles had a small operation, but a close one. Their offices at Memorial Stadium were physically close to the home clubhouse, and players and employees interacted with one another, respected one another, saw the world the same way. They didn’t agree on everything except one little thing: They all knew it was a privilege to be associated with the Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles have been lousy the last few years, but they’re benefitting from some of those terrible years. Former GM Andy MacPhail did a nice job accumulating a reservoir of talent that has helped this turnaround. New GM Dan Duquette’s trade for Jason Hamel has worked out great for the O’s. Manager Buck Showalter deserves enormous credit for setting a new standard, for getting his guys to play smart baseball. He let every guy in that clubhouse know that the things that may have been acceptable in other years no longer would be acceptable. The Orioles are 16-6 in games decided by two runs or less and 13-4 in games decided in the seventh inning or later.
These Orioles lead the American League in home runs and strikeouts and are next to last in stolen bases. The Earl of Baltimore would love these Birds, wouldn’t he? Adam Jones (.310, 14 HR, 31 RBI) is in the MVP conversation at this point, and Nick Markakis, Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy have all been good.
Jim Johnson is at the end of a bullpen that has been terrific. It’s second in the AL in ERA, but also second in innings. If there’s one worrisome aspect to these Birds, this is it. Then again, nothing should spoil this nice little ride. With a very good team and big crowds, the Orioles are relevant again, and that’s plenty right now.