Thursday, May 6, 2010

BALTIMORE | During their opening homestand this season, the Baltimore Orioles lost to the Tampa Bay Rays before a listless crowd of 9,129, the smallest in the history of Camden Yards.

Two weeks later, more than half the 17,248 fans in attendance backed the visiting New York Yankees during their 8-3 victory. A few days after that, thousands of red-clad backers cheered for the Red Sox in Boston’s second-favorite stadium.

Wow, how times have changed.

Baseball teams use to dread coming to Baltimore.

Back in their heyday, the Orioles had a star at every position and a fan in every seat. Wild Bill Hagy worked the crowd into a frenzy with his antics in Section 34 at Memorial Stadium, and more often than not, the home team won.

“You had to deal with guys like (Jim) Palmer, (Mike) Flanagan, (Scott) McGregor and (Mike) Cuellar,” recalled Jerry Remy, who played in the AL from 1975-84. “You go down the list — Brooks (Robinson) at third base, (Mark) Belanger at short. It wasn’t a fun place to come play.”

Those players were gone by the time the Orioles moved to Camden Yards in 1992, but the opposition still had to cope with Cal Ripken Jr. and the enthusiasm generated by sellout crowds at the new ballpark. Baltimore reached the playoffs as a wild-card team in 1996 and drew 3.7 million fans in 1997 while winning the AL East with a wire-to-wire run.

Given the state of the franchise today, it would be a difficult convincing some people that Baltimore used to be a baseball town.

“Some nights you get a lot of New York fans and very few Orioles fans. They sell their tickets,” said former Oriole Terry Crowley, now the team’s hitting coach.

The team got off to a 2-16 start this year in what appears to be Baltimore’s 13th consecutive losing season. Over the past 12 seasons the Orioles have tried everything to turn it around — with absolutely no success.

“I don’t know about that Oriole Way they used to talk about all the time,” said Remy, who played for Boston from 1978-84. “It was very much like the Dodger Way, and somewhere, somehow, that got lost along the way.”

The Red Sox haven’t had a losing record at Camden Yards since 1998, and their fans walk around the stadium like they own the place. When Kevin Youkilis steps to the plate for Boston, they aren’t saying “Boooo!” They’re saying, “Yooooooook!”

“It’s not weird because it’s an easy trip, a nice place to come and they know they can get tickets,” said Remy, now a broadcaster for the Red Sox. “It’s kind of fun for us, really, to know you have so many fans coming down to support you.

“It’s a trip I’d take if I was a fan.”

Baltimore is not alone in its struggles.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians are going through a similar ordeal. Like the Orioles, they were once successful on the field and at the gate. And they all are playing bad baseball at a time when fans are trying to cope with a poor economy.

After enduring years of poor drafts and the signing of past-their-prime free agents such as Sammy Sosa, Will Clark and Joe Carter, many Orioles fans have abandoned hope. Those who have stuck around are still waiting to see Baltimore’s first winning team of the new millennium.

“If you love your team, you love them through good times and bad times, and you stick with them,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. “Because sooner or later this team will turn it around, and you want to be there when that happens. And you understand that in life, nothing comes easy. You will go through it, and you will struggle. And how you handle it says a lot about how you’ll handle it when we turn it around.”

Andy MacPhail, president of baseball operations, is in charge of being the Orioles back to respectability. His plan is to employ a version of The Oriole Way, which involves building through the farm system and stockpiling young starting pitchers.

The results have thus far been disappointing.

One problem is that the Orioles must compete in the AL East against the Yankees and Red Sox, both of whom have not been hesitant to dole out hundreds of millions dollars in a sport without a salary cap.

“There are a couple teams out there that almost don’t let you compete for free agents. They spend ridiculous amounts of money,” Crawly said. “Even if a team like Cleveland or Seattle or Houston is prepared to go into the free agent market and they free up a lot of dollars, there are teams that just blow you right out of the water.”

The Orioles this season will hold a promotion celebrating the 40th anniversary of their 1970 World Series win. The last time Baltimore won the title was in 1983, when Ripken caught a liner to shortstop to seal a conquest of Philadelphia.

Ripken was spotted walking with MacPhail in the basement of Camden Yards recently. The Hall of Fame infielder said recently that he’s moving closer to making a decision about getting back in the game in some capacity.

Even if Ripken can’t help the Orioles win, his presence might help bring some fans back. A winning team, of course, would probably have a bigger impact.

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