By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
BALTIMORE, Sept. 27 -- When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, it was hailed immediately as the blueprint for contemporary ballpark design. And for years, even as the Baltimore Orioles continued to fall further from their one-time perch as a model franchise, fans came through the turnstiles, partly because of the stadium itself.
But the beautiful surroundings can do only so much to mask the horrors on the field.
And on Saturday, even as Baltimore snapped its season-worst 10-game losing streak with a rain-shorted 2-1 victory against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles added another indignity to what's already been a nightmarish season.
After drawing an announced crowd of just 18,378, the Orioles were assured of attracting fewer than two million fans for the first time in Camden Yard's history.
Even if they draw an unlikely sellout for Sunday's season finale, the franchise will finish with its lowest attendance figure since the infamous 1988 season.
On Saturday, attendance climbed to a little more than 1.9 million in 77 dates, for an average of little more than 25,000 per game.
Team president Andy MacPhail and Manager Dave Trembley attributed the drop to several factors.
"School starts and football starts and entertainment dollars are what they are and the economy is what it is so I think all of those things have to be taken into consideration," Trembley said.
MacPhail said the dropoff was tied to the offseason trades of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard -- moves that signaled the Orioles' intent to enter a rebuilding phase. But he said the opening of Nationals Park might have also cut into the crowds.
"I think it's reasonable to assume, if you're a family and you're going to go to a couple games a year, and even if you weren't a fan, you might find your way there," MacPhail said.
The Orioles' three-game interleague series at Nationals Park drew some of Washington's largest crowds this season, which MacPhail said was partly a function of Orioles fans choosing to attend games at the new ballpark, otherwise keeping them from coming to Camden Yards.
"A good amount of those people were wearing orange," MacPhail said. "Naturally, it's their money. They chose to see the new ballpark, which is perfectly understandable."
But the most obvious reason rests with what once again transpired on the field, where the Orioles turned in its American League-worst 11th consecutive losing season.
"Well you're probably going to get fans coming to the ballpark, especially late in the year, if you're winning and we haven't done that," Trembley said. "I thought the first 4 1/2 months we were competitive. We won a lot of come-from-behind games but obviously the last six weeks we haven't."
But on Saturday, in the penultimate game of the season, the Orioles briefly broke from recent form, then caught a break.
Orioles right-hander Brian Bass made perhaps his best argument to be considered for the rotation next season. The reliever-turned-spot starter pitched six efficient innings, needing only 77 pitches to keep Toronto at bay. Bass didn't walk a batter and made just one mistake, allowing a long homer to Toronto's Brad Wilkerson.
Bass left with a lead thanks to Melvin Mora's RBI single in the third and Brandon Fahey's sacrifice fly to knock in a run in the fourth.
"It was good to go out there and show that I can go more than five innings, and go out and pitch deeper into ballgames," said Bass, whose streak-breaking victory triggered what he called a "mini celebration" in the clubhouse after the game.
Bass already had left when the skies opened above Camden Yards, prompting a stoppage of play just after Lyle Overbay doubled to start the seventh inning. The teams waited nearly 90 minutes for the umpires to call the game, with the Blue Jays' tying run in scoring position with nobody out.
"Mother Nature helped us," Trembley said. "And Lord knows we needed all the help we can get. We'll take it."