- - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

For a June 26 Monday night game against the Seattle Mariners, a crowd of 21,202 at Camden Yards was pretty good.

Then again, it was “Halfway to Christmas Night” at the ballpark. And they were giving away Buck “Snow”-alter snow globes.

Even with that, they didn’t reach their goal — the first 25,000 fans were promised snow globes.

Maybe they could save the other 4,000 for a September promotion — perhaps a Tuesday night game against Oakland, when 4,000 would be a good crowd for a team likely approaching 100 losses.

It hasn’t been anywhere close to Christmas at Camden Yards this season. The team is facing a second-straight losing season after making the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and coming off a season last year where they barely broke 2 million in attendance. This year, they are on pace for the lowest attendance — averaging 20,062 — since the ballpark opened in 1992.

Inside the team’s headquarters at the B&O Warehouse on Eutaw Street, dysfunction and confusion is as bad as it’s ever been under the tenure of owner Peter Angelos, with questions about who is in charge of what — general manager Dan Duquette; former Orioles star and current vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson; manager Buck Showalter and Angelos’ two sons, John and Lou, whose presence in the organization has increased with Peter Angelos’ absence.

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This organization, on good days, has struggled to operate professionally over the last 20 years. But they find themselves in this blood feud with the Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball over dividing up millions of dollars in cable revenue from the network also primarily owned by Peter Angelos — the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network — that has consumed the owners, who believe that Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB has shown favoritism to the Nationals in their rulings over disputed revenue that could go well over $100 million.

The All-Star Game coming up in Washington — the game that the Orioles bid on for several years only to be passed over by MLB’s preference of four straight National League teams to host the game — adds new fuel to the bitter fight between the two clubs.

That fight has resulted in rumors in Baltimore that the Orioles would consider moving the franchise if they are dealt what they believe is a debilitating hand in the MASN dispute.

Last week, respected Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck wrote that the MASN dispute has led to “whispers around town about the possibility of the Orioles leaving Baltimore one day.”

I know Peter Schmuck well. He didn’t just pull that out of thin air.

Now, we are a long way from the Orioles — the former St. Louis Browns who relocated to Baltimore in 1954 — backing Mayflower vans up to Camden Yards.

But the combination of circumstances — a new MLB panel about to rehear the MASN money dispute, the talk by Manfred about expanding to Nashville, Portland and other markets, and the lease the late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams signed to stay in Baltimore for 30 years about to expire — could lead the Orioles to play the relocation threat.

You couldn’t have a worse combination of plaintiffs and defendants than Peter Angelos and Nationals owner Ted Lerner. Angelos has made his fortune taking people to court, and the Lerners have made theirs in part daring people to take them to court. The MASN dispute, over how much the Angelos-owned network have to hand over to the Nationals has been tied up in court for several years, but last year a court ruling ordered the case back to MLB for another arbitration hearing, with a new panel to be selected and a hearing coming up again soon.

MASN was created in 2005 to placate Angelos when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington. It gave the Orioles owner his own regional sports network to offset the alleged financial damage done to the Baltimore franchise by putting a team in Washington — which the Orioles had considered part of their market.

But how much impact is up to debate. The team’s attendance dropped by an all-time high of 3.7 million at Camden Yards in 1997 to 2.4 million in 2003, two years before the Expos moved to Washington — the drop coinciding with a string of Orioles losing seasons that lasted for 14 straight years until 2012.

What also happened during this time was the return of NFL football to Baltimore, with the Browns moving to Baltimore in 1996 and becoming the Ravens. They opened their new stadium right next to Camden Yards in 1998 and were Super Bowl champions two years later.

In a blue-collar town like Baltimore, families have to make season-ticket decisions that represent a significant investment. And now they had a choice, with football back in Baltimore for the first time since the Colts left town in 1984. The Ravens presence has had a far greater negative impact on the Orioles business than the Nationals.

Then there are the self-inflicted business wounds by one of the worst-run franchises in baseball. The Orioles typically are among the last teams in baseball to put their season tickets on sale, and their marketing efforts have been weak — well, save for Buck “Snow”-alter Snow Globe giveaways.

Threats of relocation are empty. What is more likely is that in the next several years, the Orioles are sold. There is this feeling inside Major League Baseball that they would not live with the two sons running the franchise, although how they could force a sale is unclear.

Then again, that could be the whole purpose behind MLB’s support of the Nationals in the MASN dispute – to force a sale. Then, for Orioles fans, Christmas may finally arrive at Camden Yards.

Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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