BALTIMORE — The sun dipped below the horizon Tuesday night precisely two minutes before Kevin Gausman delivered the evening’s first pitch to Mookie Betts, under a magnificent sky of high clouds that was suddenly spread out across Oriole Park at Camden Yards like a fluffy pink blanket. This was pennant race baseball, late September, Red Sox vs. Orioles, first place vs. second in the American League East, game No. 151 for both teams. It was 77 degrees. It was darn near perfect.
For the home team, the only things lacking were the fans and, ultimately, the victory. Nowadays, it’s fair to wonder whether the two are related.
In front of another strangely puny crowd — announced at 20,387 and padded by large swaths of Red Sox faithful — the Orioles suffered their fourth loss in six games during this critical homestand, falling to Boston, 5-2. In doing so, they fell five games behind the Red Sox in the AL East standings, their biggest deficit of the year, with 11 games to play.
The Orioles remain in line for a wild card, but they fell a half-game behind Toronto, pending the Blue Jays’ late game in Seattle, for the right to host the wild-card game, and Detroit lurks just a game and a half back.
“There’s still an opportunity in front of us,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said.
Tuesday night’s game pivoted, as so many have here over the past decade and a half, on one swing of David Ortiz’s bat. In the seventh, with the Red Sox up 2-1, Ortiz — Boston’s soon-to-be-retired designated hitter, playing in his final regular season series at Camden Yards — blasted a three-run homer off Gausman into the bleachers in right-center, breaking the game open. Thunderous roars broke out across pockets of the stadium as Ortiz circled the bases for the 30th time in his career at this park.
Where are the Orioles fans anyway? The team entered Tuesday ranked just 20th of 30 MLB teams in average attendance, at 26,595 — with Cleveland the only contending team doing worse at the gate. That figure represents a decline of about 9 percent from 2015, when the team averaged 29,246.
Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than bottom-line economics. This year, for only the third time in 12 years, the Orioles raised ticket prices — by a significant margin, averaging roughly 20 percent. Within the renewal letter mailed to season ticket holders, mention was made of the re-signings of Chris Davis and Darren O’Day over the offseason, as if to say, “You wanted us to keep our players — now pony up.”
When ticket prices go up 20 percent for a team coming off a .500 season, as the Orioles posted in 2015, a 9 percent decrease in attendance doesn’t seem so surprising — except that one would expect attendance to shoot up in the late stages of a pennant race. And it hasn’t. You can’t blame it on a disconnected fan base, because the Orioles’ broadcasts on MASN rank fourth in the majors in average ratings.
Orioles players, apparently aware of the bad optics of millionaire athletes telling their fans how they should spend their money, are largely staying away from the topic, at least publicly. Center fielder Adam Jones shrugged off a question about the attendance Tuesday, saying he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Third baseman Manny Machado gave a bloodless answer: “The fans that are here are giving us . . . all the support we need to go out there and win games.”
But across the organization, it is a constant source of conversation and debate.
“We had this discussion the other day and we came up with at least 11 reasons,” said former Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, now a MASN commentator.
Among them, he said, were the lingering effect of the April 2015 civil unrest in Baltimore, which continues to impact downtown businesses; the hot summer weather; the steady encroachment of the Washington Nationals’ reach across suburban Maryland; and an unfavorable schedule featuring, for example, three home weekend series against the last-place Tampa Bay Rays but none against the big-draw Red Sox, plus just 12 home dates between June 27 and August 15, a period that coincides roughly with school being out.
“It’s been a confluence of factors,” Palmer said. “But the schedule didn’t do us any favors.”
This late in the season, the schedule has no more favors to give. The Orioles have five more home dates, then finish with six on the road. Their hopes of returning to Camden Yards again, for the bounty of October, depend upon what happens across the next week and a half.