By Andy Marso
It’s a typical Thursday night at Camden Yards and the Orioles are on their way to a 5-0 loss to Minnesota.
By the time the night is over the O’s are 30 games behind the Yankees in the divisional race and the worst team in baseball. There are weeks and weeks of baseball left to play, but Stephen Hawking couldn’t find a mathematical path to the playoffs.
This is the Baltimore sports fan’s summer of discontent. It’s been oppressively hot. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 10 percent. There were more than 800 foreclosures filed in May, June and July. The homicide rate jumped.
And the ballpark is no emotional refuge.
Does it matter? It’s only baseball.
But baseball is more than balls and strikes, especially for a team and a city that have been linked for more than 60 years. It’s a chance for Baltimoreans to connect with each other 162 days a year — to be proud of where they live and bask in reflected glory.
It’s part of the city’s identity.
“Ask people around the world what they know about Baltimore,” Tom Noonan, the head of the city’s tourism agency, said. “They’ll probably say crab cakes, Hopkins and the O’s.”
Baltimore has had the Orioles longer than any other team. They were here when the Colts arrived and they were here when the Colts bolted for Indianapolis in the middle of the night. They were here when the Ravens flew in 14 years ago. They’ve won more games and more championships for Baltimore than anyone.
They are part of a Baltimore summer, even beyond the 81 games they play in town each year.
You can see it in the bleachers, where a fan named Adam Kennedy sports a “Camden Sky” tattoo on his right shoulder. It’s the name of his two-year-old daughter.
You can see it in the orange T-shirts that spring up on game day — some with new names like “Scott” or “Jones” on the back, and some with old standbys like “Robinson.”
You can hear it from Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who doesn’t live and die with the team, but still feels the city sag with each losing streak.
“I can’t name you who plays third base or anything, but I know how the team is doing,” Clarke said. “It has something to do with how you feel.”
A city in need of a boost
Attendance for the game against Minnesota is reported at 20,108, which would make Oriole Park about 40 percent full. Even with dozens of school groups, hundreds of Boy Scouts in the area for their national jamboree and the hundreds – maybe thousands — strolling the concourses decked out in Twins gear, this number seems like a stretch.
Not a single section of the stadium is full, and several are completely empty.
Brandon Crawford, a 15-year-old from Sykesville who’s at his sixth game this season, says this is an above-average crowd.
“This is what to expect when a good team comes,” Crawford says. “On an average night, don’t expect more than 10,000.”
Crawford may not be exaggerating. The Orioles drew 9,129 for an April 12 game against Tampa Bay — the lowest paid attendance since Camden Yards opened in 1992. A two-game series against Kansas City in May failed to draw 10,000 in either game.
Does it mean the city has stopped caring? Maybe. But then there’s this: TV ratings are up 11 percent this season, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. The city won’t let go.
George Wilson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Miami, said that when sports teams in Miami are losing, people just shrug and go to the beach. But it’s different in Baltimore.
“Baltimore is a working-class town and they identify with the sports teams through thick or thin,” Wilson said. “I think there’s some identification with the team that’s pretty strong and I think when the Orioles don’t do well, it does have an impact on the city. I think the city does feel that sense of disappointment.”
Hear Byron Warnken talk about the Orioles:
Wilson isn’t speaking from some ivory tower of academia. He knows this town and he knows this team.
He did his doctoral work at Johns Hopkins, and was at Oriole Park for the first game at sparkling new Camden Yards in 1992. He brought his 11-year-old nephew, who lived out the fantasy of thousands of people there that day by snagging a foul ball.
Beloved public address announcer Rex Barney bellowed, “Give that fan a contract,” as he always did when a fan made a catch. An usher came down and took Wilson’s nephew’s address. A week later a package arrived from the Baltimore Orioles. It included a mock contract and autographs from several players.
It was the kind of savvy marketing aimed at producing lifelong, evangelical fans. So how closely does Wilson’s nephew follow the team now?
“He’s actually a Yankees fan,” Wilson said.
Back at Oriole Park, the Twins are off to a quick lead and passion is at a premium in the stands. During big games, teams compare noise levels to things like jet planes and chainsaws. On this particular night, a decibel meter at Oriole Park would likely register somewhere in the “pleasant conversation” range.
Crawford has passion, but not the kind the Orioles would like to see. He’s wearing a paper bag over his head with “Embarrassed O’s fan” written on it. He’s also carrying a sign that reads “Trade Izturis for a good batboy.”
Cesar Izturis, the Oriole’s starting shortstop, is batting about .250 for the season. But Crawford’s frustration runs much deeper than a light-hitting middle infielder. He was an infant the last time the Orioles had a winning season, and he’s fed up.
“It’s pathetic that a team could be this bad for so long,” he says. “That fans are still coming out and supporting this is ridiculous.”
It wasn’t always this way, of course. If it had been, it might be easier. But the old-timers remember the days when the Orioles were the talk of the town and one of the most feared teams in baseball.
Byron Warnken was born in Baltimore 64 years ago and has never left. He’s been following the Orioles since they moved from St. Louis in 1954.
Hear Allen Willis talk about the Orioles:
Warnken has vivid memories of when manager Earl Weaver led the team to four World Series appearances in the 1960s and 1970s.
“This was Earl Weaver Town,” Warnken says. “All of our great players — Brooks and Frank and Boog, who’s selling these burgers right over there, and Palmer and Blair — all of those people played in that era. We were all spoiled because we thought it was normal. Now we know it wasn’t.”
For Warnken, this is still a baseball town, and he dresses the part for the Minnesota game. He’s wearing a blaze orange Orioles cap, a gaudy Orioles button-down shirt and, because he’s a law professor by day, one supposes, an Orioles tie.
Unlike Crawford, Warnken has more than just memories of Cal Ripken Jr. to keep him coming to Camden Yards. But this season is wearing even him down.
“This is the first year that I admit that my enthusiasm has dropped a little bit,” Warnken says. “I mean, I still have season tickets, I’m still here, but I’m the last of the die-hards. There aren’t many die-hards left.”
Keeping hope alive
The Twins add a few insurance runs in the late innings and an Orioles comeback becomes even less likely. Then the home fans suddenly get something to cheer about. First baseman Ty Wigginton and interim manager Juan Samuel are both ejected for foot-stomping, hat-hurling tirades after a disputed call at first. The crowd loves it.
One inning later a fan runs onto the field. He runs zigzags around the less physically fit police officers for what seems like forever, even hopping into the stands and then turning around and running back onto the field for an encore. Eventually the home plate umpire talks him into surrendering. The crowd loves this even more than the ejections.
The sideshow has overshadowed the show.
But Merrill Melnick, a SUNY-Brockport professor who specializes in sports sociology, said that’s OK. He said the peripheral entertainment at the stadium — postgame fireworks, singles nights, fans running on the field for longer than should be humanly possible — are often more important to the casual fan than whether the team wins or loses.
Casual fans might be satisfied with a few hours of entertainment, even if it ends in a loss. But Melnick said it was different for the die-hards, whom he calls “highly identified fans.”
“Certainly a lack of success for the highly identified fan can result in some very negative emotional reactions,” Melnick said. “But fans, we know, have all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with failure.”
One of those coping mechanisms is called “blasting,” in which highly identified fans angrily pin all the team’s failings on a single scapegoat — the opposing team, the officials, the manager, etc.
Crawford, like many O’s fans, has chosen Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos as his blasting victim.
As millionaire owners go, Angelos isn’t particularly stingy: The Orioles’ on-field payroll ranked 17th out of the 30 major league teams this year. But Merrill said blasting Angelos helps the die-hards rationalize their continued fanhood.
Angelos did not respond to several phone calls asking for comment.
Merrill also said hope generally springs eternal for highly identified fans and that even after 13 losing seasons, it wouldn’t take much to get them anticipating a big turnaround.
Buck Showalter became that rallying point when he was hired as manager July 30. Even Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took notice, saying that she hoped Showalter would be the one to lead the team and the city back to glory.
“I remember growing up when we were in the pennant race,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I remember when we won the World Series. You can’t take that feeling away from a kid growing up. It gets down into your spirit. I want kids growing up in Baltimore today to have that same feeling of pride for their team and for their city.”
Certainly there are some in Baltimore who just don’t care — for whom it makes no difference whether the Orioles win, lose or simply cease to exist. Iconic film director and Baltimore native John Waters speaks for them:
“I don’t even remember how you play baseball,” Waters said through his assistant.
But there are thousands of highly identified fans that still care. And there are tens of thousands of casual fans who want to care — who would jump on the bandwagon if someone just put the wheels back on.
“It becomes a city event,” Warnken, the die-hard, decked-out lawyer, said. “For example, when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, there were people who wouldn’t know the front end or the back end of a football who were all ‘rah-rah-sis-boom-bah.’ ”
Perhaps Showalter will be the one to bring them into the flock, the way Weaver once did. The dramatic improvement the team made in his first few weeks got the city buzzing.
“Buck Showalter’s arrival has clearly been a boost to our fans’ interest in the team after four months of what has been a very difficult season,” Greg Bader, the team’s director of communications, said in a statement.
“Our TV and radio ratings are up, our walk-up crowds at Oriole Park have been extremely strong, and we are hopeful that the team’s recent good play will continue and fans will continue to come out to the ballpark throughout the final eight weeks of the season.”
Even in a lost season, one can see the Orioles’ potential to unite the city.
Rawlings-Blake said that Camden Yards is “a true picture of Baltimore’s diversity,” and that was evident on the outfield plaza before the Orioles played the Twins back in July. There were men and women. There were young people and old people. There were white people, black people and brown people. There just weren’t that many people.
Not many people means a tough night for Allen Willis. Willis has patches of white hair right above his ears. He also has deep wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, as if he smiles a lot. This is surprising.
Willis stands across the street from the stadium entrance with a large plastic cup, hoping people passing by will put money in it. He says he spends his days looking for work and his evenings outside the ballpark, looking for spare change.
Allen Willis, born and raised in Baltimore, is worried about the Orioles. He wants them to play better. At first he blames Angelos, but when asked if he really thinks it’s Angelos’ fault, he backs off.
“I don’t know man, I don’t know,” he says quickly, waving his free hand and stretching those surprising wrinkles with a smile.
He shifts his plastic cup to the other arm and a few lonely coins rattle inside.
“They just got to start winning, man,” Willis says. “Once they start winning, things will be all right.”