Recently, Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum director emeritus and historian Mike Gibbons asked me if I would participate in a new initiative the museum was embarking upon. Museum staffers are asking media types and celebrities to come in and share a sports story that is significant to them while they film the person telling that story. Then the staff culls through appropriate graphics that the museum has on hand to help tell that story visually.
I recommend you go to baberuthmuseum.org and click on the YouTube icon and watch mine as well as several others the staff has accumulated. In coming up with what story I would tell — the night I got “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” banned from ever being played again as the seventh-inning-stretch song at Memorial Stadium — it led me down a path of thinking about how the Orioles can inject some energy into Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Back in their heyday, the Orioles were a team to behold, but one that really didn’t draw commensurately with how well they played the game. From 1966-1978 — years that included four trips to the World Series and two championships — the Orioles drew a total of 13,374,019 fans.
That’s a puny annual average of about 1.03 million.
Before I get on with my point, let me just state that the attendance at Camden Yards this year was 793,229, an average of 10,169 fans per home date. If you go all the way back to the three consecutive World Series appearance seasons (1969-1971) the Orioles barely drew more than 1 million fans in each of those seasons.
I won’t go into all the reasons the club began to engage with fans better in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but a wonderful team, managed by a legendary manager, certainly helped. Think of Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Doug DeCinces, Al Bumbry, Lee May and Mike Boddicker, for starters.
The club also had a wonderful media partner in WFBR which promoted the club 24/7 for 365 days a year. The other home team became a disaster, too. The Colts were a thorn in the side of the Orioles for years but fell into disrepute under the chaotic ownership of Robert Irsay.
Things got so bad so fast that the Colts relocated after their 1983 season. Ironically, the Orioles won the World Series against the Phillies in ’83. That move by the Colts cemented the Orioles’ relationship with fans.
That the fans’ investment in the Orioles right now is so low is a complicated situation. The fact that Washington, D.C., got a team again in 2005 is the biggest reason that attendance began to drop, other than the product on the field. From 1992-2001, the Orioles averaged 3.37 million fans per season.
But in steering back to my purpose for writing this column, the most important thing the club can do now — outside of the continued investment in and improvement of the farm system — is to begin to win fans back in a personal way.
The biggest mistake the Orioles can make as an organization right now is believe all they have to do to win back fans is eventually field a good team. The organization does itself and its fans an injustice in promoting the good news down on the farm over and over again instead of putting in the necessary work to revitalize the fan experience.
This column started with the story I recorded about getting rid of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” How about announcing that the seventh-inning-stretch song is open for discussion with the fans? When your attendance goes from more than 3 million to about 800,000, can that song mean all that much?
What about having young broadcasters Brett Hollander, Geoff Arnold and Melanie Newman hold weekly Zooms for season-ticket holders with Orioles players from the team’s glorious and not-so-glorious days?
What about instituting in-house 50-50 raffles where every night a fan coming to the ballpark might win thousands of dollars? Or how about nights when the club gives fans sets of tires for just being at a game? Or a washer and dryer? Or a new TV? Yes, that is buying fans in a way.
How about holding an Orange Week during the heart of the season? The Dodgers held a “Think Blue Week” for years. It gave fans the chance to be a public address announcer for a day, a TV broadcaster for a day, the team photographer for a day. The key is doing this in the middle of the season, not at the very end when fans have started to invest in the Ravens.
Look, I am an Orioles lifer. I have great respect and even affection for the hard-working folks who are part of Orioles baseball. And at the end of the day, I am a lifer whether or not they adopt a single idea I have put forward here.
But sometimes you only have one chance to make a good first impression. This time is so crucial for the non-baseball folks in the organization to catch up so they reap all that they can sow when the rebuild begins to bear fruit.
Photo Credit: Colin Murphy/PressBox