- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

BALTIMORE Roger Shiflett has seen the good times at Camden Yards, when thousands of fans would stream by the six vendor stands he operated outside the ballpark.

These are not the good times.

Before Wednesday night's game against the Chicago White Sox, Shiflett was setting up his nut stand, one of just two he now has outside the ballpark. And there was nobody walking by.

"This is the worst it has ever been," said Shiflett, who is also president of the Camden Yards Vendors Association. "People aren't coming. There's no reason for them to come here anymore."

Every time the Baltimore Orioles take the field at home these days, they face the possibility of setting a record the lowest attendance at Camden Yards since the park opened in 1992. Attendance has declined in each of the past five seasons and is down 12 percent from last year. It peaked at 3.7 million in 1997 and fell below 3 million for the first time last year (besides the strike-shortened 1994 season), when the Orioles drew 2.7 million.

Twice this season, the Orioles have drawn a record-low crowd, most recently Tuesday night when just 18,017 reportedly paid to see the opener of the White Sox series. Club officials provided that figure, but the actual number in the ballpark was less, as has been the case all season.

"They say 18,000, but it's more like 8,000," Shiflett said. "They have a lot of no-shows. Who wants to come and see minor league players and pay these prices when they can go to Bowie or someplace and pay less to see the same thing?"

The Orioles have played well of late they had won six their last eight games before last night to get to 10-10 but fans are not buying what the club is selling: a team full of little-known role players and unproven youngsters.

The Orioles' home average of 27,275 this season down from 31,076 after 12 home dates last year ranks the club 13th in attendance in the major leagues, just behind the Colorado Rockies.

April is a difficult month for baseball, but particularly this year, with the bitter cold temperatures the area has endured. And the economic downturn has certainly had an impact on the sports and entertainment industry.

But chief operating officer Joe Foss acknowledged that the product the Orioles have put on the field since 1997 five straight losing seasons, with an overall record of 361-448 has had a major impact on the falling attendance.

"There are multiple things going on that have caused the attendance to be what it is," Foss said. "I think it begins with the fact that for the last five years our won-loss record has been far less than what we had hoped it would be. Fans of all sports want to come to see teams that are winning. We haven't had a winning record. I think it is a significant factor, but it is not the only factor.

"You have a very soft economy. You have had difficult weather. It has been awful here, and difficult around the country for all of baseball. And you have a lot of competing demands on people's times in April and May."

Elsewhere in the region, The New York Mets and Yankees also have reported attendance declines, though the Philadelphia Phillies have posted a 12 percent increase.

Also, the schedule has hardly helped. Save for the first weekend series of the year against the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles have played four games against another perennial loser the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and six games against the Cleveland Indians and the White Sox, neither of which is a big draw.

Still, Camden Yards has gone through 11 previous Aprils, in good and bad weather, without experiencing such small crowds. And now the club is reduced to relying on what the Washington Wizards used to count on before Michael Jordan took the court: fans from other teams filling the seats.

"We have had a very heavy amount of games early on with teams that are not as likely to draw fans into the ballpark as we will have as the season progresses," Foss said. "The major divisional rivalries are not scheduled until late June, July, August and September."

The Orioles will pay a significant price financially if attendance remains down.

Assuming those rivalries spike attendance slightly from the current average, the Orioles will end the season with a total attendance of between 2.3 million and 2.4 million. With an average ticket price of $18.23, that translates to a drop in ticket revenue of about $6 million from last year. Lost concession revenue would push the figure even further. Owner Peter Angelos says the Orioles already lose about $10 million a year.

One of the top draws, of course, are the Yankees, who don't come to Baltimore until the beginning of July. Spencer Meade, a 37-year-old Orioles fan from Odenton, Md., isn't looking forward to the prospect of a ballpark filled with Yankee fans. "That's going to be ugly," he said.

Then again, Meade may not be there. He had a 13-game season ticket plan for five years but decided not to renew it this season.

"I just come occasionally now," he said. "They have made a lot of goofy player moves and they don't seem to be spending money anymore, so I decided I couldn't afford it anymore."

Mike Stoehr, 37, of Gambrills, Md., isn't ready to give up yet. "I'm a true fan," he said. "I still like coming to the ballpark. But if they changed ownership, it wouldn't hurt my feelings."

Fans can decide whether they want to spend their money, but businesses in and around the ballpark live and die by those decisions. Across the street from the park, two popular hangouts Pickles Pub and Sliders have suffered as a result of the small crowds.

Mick Kipp, a bartender at Pickles, said the place has seen the ripple effect.

"We're open late, so we usually would get a lot of employees from other bars and restaurants around here to come in for last call," he said. "We're not getting that now. That tells me they are not getting the business either, because they have no cash to spend."

Kristin Olsson, the manager at Sliders, agreed. "People are not coming out," she said. "Fans seem to think they need big-name players. But we're optimistic it will pick up."

The Orioles have no plans to add any "big-name" players this year.

"I understand the fans' concerns, but I hope the fans understand that we have a plan and these things don't get turned around overnight," said Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations. "Bringing in a marquee ballplayer that might now help us win more ballgames, fans will see through that in a second. We're in the process of developing our own players, and we will do it the old-fashioned way, in our minor league system."

But Foss promised that the club is committed to attracting some star free agents for next season and that the fans will return.

"Entering into the free agent signing period for 2004, our committed payroll is about $24 million," he said. "So we are going to have an enormous amount of resources to go into a far stronger free agent pool that we intend to actively participate in. When you add in the proven stars to the team, with the continued development of the farm system, I have no doubt that this will be a 3 million-plus attendance team again in the very near future. It will rebound very quickly."

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