- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

BALTIMORE — The re-branding of the Baltimore Orioles is under way.

Yesterday’s introduction of free agent acquisition Miguel Tejada, and the likely signing of outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez to catch, signals not only a willingness by the Orioles to spend for on-field improvement but a full-throttle campaign to return fans to Camden Yards.

The offseason shopping spree will be backed by a “substantial increase” in the team’s marketing and promotions budget, said Joe Foss, Orioles vice chairman and chief operating officer. Specific marketing plans and budget figures have not been determined, Foss said, but the team is certain to be more visible than at any point since its last postseason appearance in 1997.

“We’re going to have an immediate re-energizing of the Orioles brand, and there is no doubt we are going to work very hard to market this team,” Foss said. “Players of this caliber place a new energy around us. There is reason to be excited, and we will be out there in every major form of media and in the public, making sure our fans know what we’re doing.”

The work Baltimore must do to recapture the fan buzz from the early and mid-1990s is substantial. Attendance has fallen for six straight years, during which the team has lost an average of 90 games. Local TV ratings have ebbed for nearly as long, and there have been no real highlights of any kind for the franchise since Cal Ripken retired after the 2001 season.

Once one of the most respected franchises in baseball, the Orioles of recent years have devolved into a largely nameless and faceless collection of underachievers. Tickets once scalped for hundreds of dollars couldn’t be given away in some circles.

The entry of Tejada, however, quickly changes that. The shortstop’s six-year, $72million contract is the largest in franchise history. And unlike previous high-profile additions like Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark and Albert Belle, Tejada, with a listed age of 27, likely is entering the prime of his career.

“Miguel will be one of the core players for the Orioles for many years to come,” said Jim Beattie, Orioles executive vice president.

Tickets for the 2004 season will go on sale in late January or early February, when the first waves of aggressive marketing also are expected. When the ticket windows open, Foss and other team officials expect quick returns and a place among baseball’s leaders in attendance growth.

“A return to 3 million [a mark the Orioles hit every full season from 1992 to 2001] would be a very aggressive turnaround,” Foss said. The team drew 2.45 million in 2003, a Camden Yards low.

“A lot of that, of course, depends on how the standings begin to play out,” Foss continued. “But there is no question we should see a sizable increase. We will be among the leaders in attendance increase.”

The Orioles also will develop a series of prominent TV ads. The team last ran a major, television-led promotional effort in early 2002, when its “Give Us An ‘O’” TV campaign was designed to redefine the team following Ripken’s retirement.

The series of spots, produced by Baltimore-based ad agency Trahan, Burden & Charles (TBC), was catchy and featured the Orioles as a plucky, eager band of youngsters. But the team lost 95 games that year, including a 4-32 finish, and again declined at the turnstiles.

“This [signing] is great news for the Orioles. They finally have a fresh slate,” said Allan Charles, TBC president. “The best marketing is always going to be fielding a winning team, but we will sit down with the club very soon and help in any way we can. A new beginning has finally arrived.”

Charles, however, also tempered his enthusiasm somewhat with Baltimore’s hot stove activity and not just because the Orioles could still struggle to elevate from fourth place in the ultra-competitive American League East.

“You have to remember that on paper Albert Belle was going to hit 75 home runs a year when he signed here,” Charles said.

The Orioles yesterday did not announce anything about Guerrero, who is represented by the same agent as Tejada. But assuming the Dominican star signs with Baltimore, it would represent yet another blow to fans seeking a Washington area team. Guerrero was the centerpiece of the Montreal Expos, currently owned by Major League Baseball and set for relocation perhaps by 2005, until he became a free agent and the Expos declined to offer him arbitration.

Instead of leading a Washington team, Guerrero could assume the same role with the area’s closest club and be a prominent obstacle to landing a franchise.

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