More than a game

By Laura E. Lee

In Charm City, the Orioles drag toward the close of another losing season, a sad fixture of summertime. It is anything but charming. The last time the O’s had a winning season was 1997 and 2010 will not be the year to break the streak.

The Orioles haven’t always been such a sob story. They were World Series Champions in 1966, 1970 and 1983. In the 1970s and 1980s, superfan “Wild Bill” Hagy led energetic crowds in chants and cheers at Memorial Stadium. Hometown hero Cal Ripken Jr. claimed national headlines in 1995 when the Iron Man broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Spectators watch the Orioles play the Minnesota Twins at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Thursday, July 22, 2010. (Steve Kilar/Capital News Service)

After the team moved to its new home, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in 1992, other teams rushed to complete retro red-brick stadiums with the same charm. Oriole Park sold out every home game for years.

Now, 20,000 fans feels like a crowd.

In the midst of a severe recession, when people are worried about mortgages and paychecks, does the poor performance of the O’s really matter? As city employees face layoffs and unemployment escalates, does America’s pastime make a difference beyond the walls of Camden Yards?

“To be a major league city, you need a major league baseball team,” said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. “That’s just how it is.”

Is having a team enough or does the city really need victories on the field to improve its collective self-confidence?  George Wilson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Miami, thinks a winning season can lift a city’s spirit.

“When some of these cities that are sort of economically downtrodden — that haven’t fared well — when their sports teams do well, it is such a shot in the arm to the psyches of these cities,” Wilson said.

The city of Baltimore, with its historic inferiority complex, needs a shot in the arm.

If the fans of victorious teams bask in reflected glory when their teams win, do they wallow in reflected shame when they lose? Signs of the trickle-down effects of the Orioles’ dismal performance are evident throughout the city.

A railroad bridge is painted with Orioles' pride. (Ilana Yergin/Capital News Service)

The most obvious sign of the O’s failure: rows and rows of empty green seats at Camden Yards. The empty stands have implications beyond lost money for the franchise.

Just outside the brick walls of Camden Yards, the effects are felt by the vendors who rely on the dwindling crowds for their livelihoods. The economic ripples of declining attendance is very real in the empty pockets and cash registers of vendors, bars and other businesses around Camden Yards.

Carl Cromartie, 20, has worked as a vendor since he was 12. He longs for a better team. “It’d be a full house out here it’d be crazy. It’d be worth it because you’d be making way more money,” he said.

A few yards away, the scalpers feel the burn of the downturn. “It’s gotten to the point now where even the ticket scalpers are losing money,” said Richard McNeal, who has been re-selling tickets outside Camden Yards since it opened in 1992.

Restaurants and bars depend on the bursts of spending during the 81 home games. They feel the losing record in their cash registers and tip jars. Jennifer Thompson, 25, an employee at Pickles Pub across the street from Camden Yards, is frustrated with the lack of business.

“It’s been very slow,” she said. “I’ve only worked here a year but compared to last year, it’s been a very slow season.”

Just a few yards behind the scalpers, the subtle effects of the O’s poor performance can be seen in the declining ridership for light rail.

The pain of the Orioles’ losses ripples out beyond Camden Yards, and even beyond the city limits of Baltimore, to the dusty diamonds of youth league fields all over the metro area.

In Dundalk, fewer children are playing baseball, said John Brummet, an official with the Dundalk-Eastfield Recreation Council.

“We’d probably have more kids registered if our team was doing better,” said Deborah Freeman, a mother of two and Dundalk youth league baseball official.

It’s a challenging summer in Baltimore. Residents are suffering from the miserable heat and city hall’s budget shortfall forced the early shutdowns of local pools. Violent crime has spiked and unemployment plagues the city. Baltimore would welcome some good news, even if it is just a win at the ballpark.

“A city like Buffalo, Detroit or Cleveland, that have a strong working-class feel to it, I think when those cities have successful sports teams it really does a lot to bridge gaps that divide these towns and makes people feel better about themselves,” Wilson said. “Conversely, when their sports teams aren’t doing well, I think there’s a sense of resignation that permeates part of their lives.”

The sense of resignation hangs heavy in the air around Camden Yards. With sweltering August temperatures, the Orioles are in a heated race with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the title of team with the worst record in baseball.

Night after night, on the perfectly manicured diamond at Camden Yards, small crowds muster cheers for a team that hasn’t achieved a winning season since Monica Lewinsky was an unknown intern. Even diehard fans struggle to believe when they say, “Wait till next year.”