Amid speculation over their moving to a new ballpark, the Baltimore Orioles are experiencing by far their biggest preseason at the gate, another indication of the team's renaissance in a city where baseball traditionally has played second banana to football.
The speculation has come largely from public officials who, wary that the team might be moved to Washington, have proposed all manner of incentives for keeping it in Memorial Stadium, or in a new stadium somewhere in Baltimore or its suburbs.
The Orioles' new owner, Edward Bennett Williams, has not asked for any of the favors that city and state officials are scrambling to heap upon him.
In fact, Williams has spent much of his time since buying the club last November denying that any moves are contemplated. As long as the fans support the club in Baltimore, he has said repeatedly, it will remain there.
He also has said he has no plans now to build a new baseball-only stadium for Orioles, a proposal that some state officials would be willing to support should he change his mind about playing in the city's 52,860-seat facility.
Despite -- or because of -- the rumors and speculation, Oriole fans have responded in unprecedented numbers.
Until last year, when the Orioles sold $1.3 million in full-season tickets, preseason sales had never topped $1 million. This year, the club has already hit the $2.3 million mark and $2.5 million appears to be within reach, according to Alan E. Harazin, vice president for business affairs.
That represents a sale of almost 4,000 full-season tickets, nearly 1,800 more then ever have been sold before.
An informal survey that the Orioles conducted a few years ago indicated that roughly 10 percent of the team's fans came from the Washington area, although most are from the Maryland suburbs. Club officials are hoping to enlarge on that figure and part of the strategy involves more exposure for the team through Washington media. Locally, WDCA-TV-20 will broadcast 40 games and, on radio, WTOP 1500 is scheduled to air approximately 150 games.
Additionally, Orioles executive are working on transportation and ticket sale plans designed to make life easier for the Washington baseball fan who last saw a hometown team nine years ago.
"We're trying to encourage Washington fans to go over to Memorial Stadium," Williams said. "I've had a number of meetings with our people about arranging for buses and ticket outlets. We hope to have the plans laid out by April 1.
"We plan to have free toll lines so anyone can call the stadium and arrange seats and we're working with the city to provide much better ingress and egress so it will be a lot easier this year."
Robert R. Aylward, director of tickets and sales, said there has been "limited response" from the Washington area so far, but he expects it to pick up as current sale plans are implemented.
Over the winter, promotional events for the American League champs have been heavily attended and the club even dispatched Harazin and its public relations director, Bob Brown, to Nashville to preside over the recording of "Orioles Magic," the team's new theme song.
Aside from the full-season ticket drive, the Orioles are offering a 25-game package of tickets costing $4, $6, or $7 each. In a reversal of past policy, this year the subscriber picks the games and the Orioles choose the seat.
We think this miniplan will be more attractive to the Washington fan than the full-season tickets," Aylward said.
Aside from selling tickets through such regular outlets here as Ticketron and Herman's Sporting Goods stores, the Orioles plan to open a branch office here. Plans also call for renewing Sunday bus service to the game from Beltway Plaza.
The word "Baltimore" has been conspicuous in its absence from Oriole ticket ads run to Washington newspapers, but both Aylward and Harazin said the omission is not new.
"We're trying to sell American League baseball and the Orioles themselves realize that a lot of people in Washington are going to respond to the opposing teams as well as to the Orioles," Aylward said. "We want to present the image of "This is where major league baseball is . . .'"
"We want to make the franchise a generic one," Harazin said, "one which would appeal to the whole region."