In Baltimore, Crowds Are Going Mild

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Through the first 12 games of this season, attendance is down 18.8 percent at Oriole Park compared with the same period last April. If that number shocks you, imagine how it resonates in Camden Yards. Attendance in Baltimore has been mostly shrinking for the last eight years. But it's never fallen off a cliff like this before. If these horrid April crowds become the norm, it's a huge blow.

Last season after 12 games, the Orioles were averaging 32,305 fans on their way to a full-season mark of 32,404. So far this spring -- and 12 games is not a small sample -- Baltimore's average attendance has plummeted to 26,238. For perspective, that would drop the Orioles from the ranks of prosperous teams like the Braves, Phillies and Mariners back to around 20th in attendance, close to payroll-pinched teams such as the Diamondbacks, Twins and Athletics.

It took the Peter Angelos Era many seasons to trim Orioles attendance by about 12,500, from more than 45,000 per game when he arrived to 32,340 over the previous three seasons. Now, is it possible the Orioles have lost another 6,000 in one winter?

Where is the bottom? And with the Nationals getting a new owner soon and a new ballpark eventually, how low will it go?

So far, the Orioles already have had the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history (13,194). They drew only 19,904 on Easter Sunday to see the defending AL West champion Angels. They've already had six crowds under 20,000, compared with just 12 such crowds in all of '05. And, on a springlike Tuesday night, they managed only 17,354 for the playoff-contending Indians.

Perhaps most worrisome were the crowds for a three-game weekend series against the Red Sox. For years, the Orioles have lived off the huge crowds that come to Camden Yards to root for the visiting team when the Yankees or Boston come to town. The Orioles and Baltimoreans hate the sight of their beautiful Yard being taken over by invaders. But it pays the bills. Last April, the Yankees drew an average of 48,181 for a three-game April weekend series. This year, the Red Sox averaged 38,742.

The series are not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. But they're very close. And the drop in attendance -- 19.6 percent -- is almost exactly the same as the drop-off in all Orioles games so far.

During the offseason, baseball worried about the Nationals' attendance in their second season in Washington. All winter, the team was tormented or hindered by MLB and District politicians. After just three games, only a slight weakness has shown up in Washington attendance. In a few weeks we'll know much more. However, the Orioles' disaster is largely unexpected.

The Orioles traded for a quality pitcher in Kris Benson and added perhaps the only truly famous pitching coach in history, Leo Mazzone. Chipper skipper Sam Perlozzo was a public-speaking improvement over Lee Mazzilli. And, just as important, the Orioles felt they would benefit from addition by subtraction. Raffy Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Sidney Ponson -- and all of their sad sagas -- were gone.

The knee-jerk response to the Orioles' terrible attendance start is to say, "It must be the Nationals." Perhaps.

But last season, when the Nationals came to town, the Orioles' attendance held up just fine. The average of 32,404 was almost identical to the average of the three previous seasons, when the Orioles drew 34,344, 30,298 and 33,122. So, off 2005 alone, it's hard to argue that the Nats hurt the Orioles very much.

Now, however, something ugly may be happening in Crab City. Has a critical mass of grass-roots dissatisfaction finally been reached? Have the Orioles, and especially Angelos, succeeded in progressively alienating more and more of the team's fans in both the Baltimore and the Washington markets?

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