On May 2, 1988, the Orioles returned home to face the Texas Rangers. Their record was 1-23. They had started the season 0-21. And a crowd of 50,402, in a remarkable act of civic forgiveness, welcomed them back to Memorial Stadium.
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On Monday night, more than 24 years later, the Orioles again returned home to face Texas. Their 19-9 record was the best in the majors. They were coming off a stunning 5-1 trip to New York and Boston. Their opponent was the two-time defending American League champion.
Yet the crowd at Camden Yards — beautiful Camden Yards, even 20 years after it opened — was only 11,938. The crowd the next night, a night that began with a threat of rain and ended with four runs by the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, was 11,263.
Yes, school is still in session. Yes, weekend games draw bigger crowds. But if ever there was a time for Orioles fans to get excited again, this should be it.
"I was hoping we’d get a better response, honestly," Orioles closer Jim Johnson said.
Yet, Johnson wasn’t complaining, and neither was anyone else. Instead, the players and manager Buck Showalter spoke almost of an obligation — an obligation to win back the fans, to make Baltimore a baseball town again.
The players get it. Showalter gets it. After 14 straight losing seasons — a streak that began under owner Peter Angelos long before anyone currently wearing a uniform arrived — the Orioles no longer merit the benefit of the doubt.
"It’s our fault. It’s not theirs," Showalter said of the fans. "They don’t trust us. I don’t know if that’s the right word. But my take on it all along is that it’s our responsibility. It can’t be lip service. It can’t be. It’s got to be, ‘Show me.’ "
Five weeks won’t do it, impressive as they have been for Baltimore. The Orioles have teased before, most notably in ’05, when they were 41-27 on June 19 and led the AL East by three games. They went 33-61 the rest of the way and finished 21 games out.
The buzz to the O’s latest hot start already is starting to fade. Two straight home losses to the Rangers — and even Hamilton’s historic game — are nothing to be embarrassed about. But the Orioles’ starting pitching is suspect. And their defense, which has committed an AL-high 30 errors in 30 games, is far from championship caliber.
On and off the field, the O’s face uphill climbs.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the Orioles led the AL in attendance for four straight seasons from 1995 to ’98. Since then, they’ve effectively lost a generation. Their average attendance dropped from 38,686 in 2001 to 21,395 in 2010 before rebounding slightly last season.
"I remember watching on TV when I was a kid and (Cal) Ripken was breaking the (consecutive-games) record, how this stadium was jam-packed," center fielder Adam Jones said. "I’ve seen it packed. But it comes down to the product on the field.
"We’re getting better. We’re playing good baseball. I understand it (the low attendance). You can’t just give ’em a little taste of it. You’ve got to show ’em it’s not a fluke."
Do that, and the fans will come rushing back.
The Orioles were once the St. Louis Cardinals of the east, backed by loyal, enthusiastic supporters. Former outfielder Brady Anderson, now a special assistant with the team, recalls drawing a standing ovation for laying down a sacrifice bunt in his Orioles debut on July 30, 1988. The O’s drew 38,540 that Saturday night against the Kansas City Royals, even though they were 27-1/2 games out of first place.
Granted, the landscape in Baltimore is different now than it was in ’88, when, in the words of Hall of Fame pitcher and O’s broadcaster Jim Palmer, "We were the only game in town." The Ravens arrived in ’96, became one of the best-run franchises in the NFL and eclipsed the Orioles in popularity. The Nationals moved to Washington, DC, in 2005 and also chipped away at the Baltimore fan base.
"You’ve got a choice," Palmer said. "You can go to Washington."
The Orioles, when they opposed the relocation of a team to DC, contended that almost a quarter of their fans came from Washington and northern Virginia. Whether that was true or not, the excuse goes only so far. Angelos’ shoddy leadership damaged the franchise far more than the Nats ever could.
Frankly, the Orioles’ struggle to capture local attention from the Ravens might be a bigger problem, at least in the players’ minds. The teams play in neighboring stadiums at Camden Yards, yet seem worlds apart.
"The big test will be when football season comes around," Johnson said. "Will people be more worried about minicamp or more worried about what we’re doing? That’s the true test. If we’re in it, if we’re playing competitive baseball, you’ll see what the city truly thinks of us.
"We’d like to win at the same time football was going on. We want to make the parking situation down here between stadiums a mess in September and October."
The Orioles/Ravens question is not a zero-sum proposition. If both teams are successful, both will generate ample support. In fact, many in the industry regard the Orioles as a sleeping giant. Their fans are not forever alienated. Quite the contrary, they are itching to come back.
Catcher Matt Wieters said he noticed more Orioles fans than usual at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park last week. Showalter said he took the job in Baltimore on July 29, 2010, in part because he remembered the passion the fans once had for the team.
"They love the Orioles. But we’ve got to do the things that love them back," Showalter said.
"You don’t hear me talking, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that.’ No. We don’t have that right after some of the stuff we’ve put them through. . . . It’s not as good baseball as they’re used to having here.
"I see it every day. It hits me, whether it’s Jim Palmer. Rick Dempsey. Flanny (the late Mike Flanagan). Mike Bordick. Rip. Brady. I got it. There’s nothing that would bring me more satisfaction than to put us in position to have some long-term success. That’s what it’s really all about."