- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2005

So we are halfway through the 2005 baseball season, and they are still whining up in Baltimore about the Washington Nationals.

The Baltimore Sun, which apparently is not happy about the fact that fewer people are coming to Camden Yards to see “the Sun” clock in center field, ran yet another story recently analyzing why more people aren’t coming to see the Orioles.

As if you need a story to figure out that after you beat people on the head with a hammer for seven straight years while taking their money, they are not suddenly going to come back because you got lucky and somehow misplaced the hammer.

Seven straight losing seasons and one dysfunctional move after another by one of the worst-run franchises on the sports landscape, and just because it happened to finally luck into a winning season so far this year (and believe me, it takes a lot of luck for this team to have a winning record with their manager), everyone is wringing his hands about the fact that it’s not 1997 anymore and the ballpark is not sold out every night — at least when they are not pointing their fingers south to RFK Stadium.

Another pencil-neck geek economist has concluded the Orioles are losing 3,000 to 5,000 fans a game to the Nationals. “Attendance should be up substantially,” Anirban Basu told the Sun. “But instead it’s down [to] around 30,000 a game. I think the difference is explainable by the Nationals.”

Of course, the cheerleaders agree.

“I don’t think it’s stretching too much to say that without the Nationals, you could add 20 to 25 percent to our total right now,” Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka told the Sun.

Donald Fry, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, told the paper he can’t see any other reason for the stagnant attendance.

“The Orioles are doing what people want them to do,” he said. “The only thing that’s new is the Nationals.”

Not true, Donny. There have been a lot of changes from the days when the Orioles drew 3.7 million fans in 1997 compared to the 2.7 million they drew last year.

Maybe do you think that, in a football town, having an NFL franchise come to the city in 1996 and start playing in a new stadium right next door in 1998 has something to do with the fact that the Orioles’ attendance doesn’t match that of the glory days? And the fact during the exact stretch of time that the Orioles went through this seven-year wretched period, the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl?

Is it possible that people in a blue-collar town have decided to spend their money for the substantial costs of going to Ravens games instead of paying for the privilege of being hit on the head with a hammer by Peter Angelos?

Here’s something else that has happened since Camden Yards was filling up: two more minor league baseball teams in Maryland. The Delmarva Shorebirds started in Salisbury in 1996 as an Expos affiliate (now that’s funny) and became an Orioles affiliate in 1997, drawing between 200,000 and 300,000 a year since then.

You say Salisbury is too far away to have any impact on the Orioles attendance? How about Aberdeen, just up the road?

For the past three years, the Aberdeen Ironbirds — another Orioles affiliate — have drawn nearly 700,000. And did anyone mention that team is owned by the biggest star in the history of the Orioles and that Cal Ripken stopped playing for the Orioles after the 2001 season?

Does anyone think that these factors may play a role in the Orioles’ diminished attendance figures?

Minor league affiliates close by, for the most part, should enhance interest in the major league team. But the Orioles have had one of the most wretched farm systems in baseball during this time of dropping attendance. When they all stink — the major league club and all four of the Orioles affiliates within driving distance of Camden Yards, drawing more than 1 million fans a year — is it possible that the minor league teams simply become a cheaper alternative?

Perhaps someone should consider that the 2.7 million fans the Orioles drew last year — up from Camden Yards’ all-time low of 2.4 million the year before — may now simply be the best they could expect, with a successful NFL franchise in town and the large numbers of fans watching minor league baseball, whether or not there was baseball in Washington.

No one knows for sure, but here’s what we do know — with the Nationals in Washington, the Orioles are drawing 85 fans a game less than last year, when there was no baseball in Washington. That’s not 3,000 to 5,000 a game. That’s not 20 to 25 percent. That’s less than 1 percent difference.

No one can assume they would be drawing more than last year’s 2.7 million otherwise. With so many factors coming into play, you can’t assume attendance that doesn’t exist. At this point, it is just wishful thinking, or maybe just a little confusion from being pounded in the head with a hammer for so long.

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