Baltimore’s most important sports event this decade? Free The Birds

December 30, 2009 | Drew Forrester

Ten years.

A decade.

Roughly 3,650 days.

In a city like Baltimore, rich with sports tradition, there were A LOT of significant events, games and decisions that were made — all of them helped to shape our sports landscape from 2000-2009.

A decade is a long time.

About a month ago, as I glanced at the calendar over the Thanksgiving holiday, I started to wonder about our city’s most important sports “happening” of the last 10 years.  I don’t get very melancholy at the close of a year, but it’s always worth a reflective-moment-or-three when a decade passes us by.  It seems like only yesterday that we all preparing for the huge computer crash that was set to take place on 1/1/2000.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what the most significant human event of this decade was:  It was the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01.  To say our country is still recovering from that day’s chain of events is an understatement.  We’re still trying to capture the guy who was responsible for putting it all together and pulling it off.  We’ll never be fully recovered until he’s on U.S. soil with shackles around his feet and a deadly, lethal injection in his veins.

And as easy as it is for all of us to recognize what event in our nation was this decade’s most important, it’s equally as simple to identify the biggest moment of the last decade that took place in Baltimore.

It happened on September 21, 2006.

You remember it as “Free The Birds”.

We remember it as the day a community of people got together, threw cold water on the face of the Orioles and said, “We’re fed up.”

Without question, the most significant sports event that took place in Baltimore in this decade was the Free The Birds rally, organized by WNST Radio and pulled off by 2,000 or so disgruntled major league baseball fans.

It was an event that drew national attention.  Here’s what the four-letter network had to say about Free The Birds.  Try not to laugh when you see the quote from the Owner about “needing to spend $100-$110 million to compete in the A.L. East”.  You’ll laugh, I’m sure, when you realize the team will probably spend roughly half that much in 2010.  Somehow, though, WNST is to blame.  We’re the reason the team is spending half of what they claimed in 2006 they would need to spend to be competitive?  That’s WNST’s fault?  Oh, OK.

There are also several videos “out there”, some of which have been messed with by the internet-powers-that-be because of music copyright laws and other dumb stuff like that, but you can watch this video here and see what happened that day.

It was a wild afternoon.

Like any story, there are morsels of truth scattered in every media account that chronicled the festivities on September 21, 2006.

No matter what was reported, there were NOT “nearly 1,000 people” taking part in the rally.

We sold 1700 Free The Birds t-shirts.  Did 700 of those people buy t-shirts and then NOT show up at the game?  Of course not.  The upper deck sections hold roughly 400 seats each.  We filled up five of them.  I went to Glen Burnie High School, yes, but I can do that math.

The Orioles paid for S.W.A.T. team members to be on hand in case the “rampagers get out of control”.  We went there to watch a baseball game and cheer for our hometown team, not get tear gas in the face.  That just showed how off-base the team was in understanding what Free The Birds was all about.  They thought we were coming there to get thrown in jail and “make a statement”.  On the contrary.  We were there to watch the hometown team play a game and then leave the stadium as a show of frustration for the moribund state of the franchise.

No one got hurt.  No S.W.A.T. team member broke a sweat.  I’m sure a few giggled as they saw those “menacing protesters” walk by, but laughing to themselves was the most energy they used all day.

And throughout that glorious, blue-sky-filled Thursday afternoon, the stadium’s left field upper deck vibrated with cheers and chants for guys like Elrod Hendricks, Eddie Murray, Mike Mussina and Miguel Tejada.  I remember Tejada running out to shortstop to start the game and giving us a wave as we roared in unison…Let’s Go O’s!, Let’s Go O’s!, Let’s Go O’s!  I’m sure he was thinking to himself, “And the club is telling us those people up there are the enemy?  How is that possible?  They sound like they’re great baseball fans to me.”

2,000 people — or “nearly 1,000” if you believe the JOURNALISTS who covered the rally from the cozy confines of the press box — had one of the greatest days of their baseball life on September 21, 2006.

Honestly, though, the actual number of people there really isn’t the issue now — three-plus years later.

What is the issue, you ask?

The issue is this:  Did it work?

You bet your orange-feathered ass it worked.

Despite another year of last place and diminishing crowds in 2009, the baseball team has slowly but surely (most certainly TOO slow for everyone’s taste, but that’s the way it goes) started the process of rebuilding their on-field roster in an effort to put together a team worthy of the city’s support.  There’s a better chance they’ll finish 3rd than 5th in 2010.  It’s been a long, long time since anyone can say that with a straight face in Baltimore.

But their process — and the progress — didn’t start in 2009.

They brought in one of the game’s most experienced baseball minds in 2007 (Andy MacPhail) and they’ve reached out to the community over the last few years to try and restore some of the magic to their once-proud brand.

There was a time when Orioles baseball stood for excellence.

Over the last 12 years or so, Orioles baseball has stood for “not trying hard enough to win for the fans”.

But September 21, 2006, shook them out of a near 10-year slumber.  Rip Van Winkle didn’t sleep that long, you say? You’re right.

We woke them up.

And they got the message on September 21, 2006.

The O’s also sent a message afterwards:  It cost the radio station our professional association with the team.

Personally, I’ve been shunned like an Amish schoolboy who gets caught dating a high school cheerleader from Mount Joy, PA.  But that’s on them, not on me.  I can’t make them treat me professionally.  And now, coming up on year three of “the great freeze-out”, I find it more funny than aggravating.

Maybe WNST should have just looked the other way in the middle part of the decade like all of the other media folks in town were doing.  Maybe we should have ignored the sagging attendance, the horrible record and the prickly treatment afforded to anyone who isn’t “part of the club”.  Yes, we would still be welcomed with open arms at OPACY if we wouldn’t have developed and implemented FTB.

Alas, we decided to do something about the shameful way the organization was being run.  We called them on it.  And they didn’t like it.

It’s the worst kept secret in town that numerous media members are either directly or indirectly earning a paycheck on behalf of the Orioles or their regional sports network.  In fairness, that’s become status quo throughout the country, as the great paying jobs disappear from the media landscape and journalists and reporters are forced to actually hop in bed with a team or two to keep paying the bills and supporting their family. There’s a part of me that understands the situation…because the bills must get handled.  You can’t pay the mortgage or your alimony or fund your monthly trips to Florida with good looks, your mustache or fantasy football accumen.

So when the station or entity you work for says, “Just remember, we’re ‘partners’ with the team now, cut them a little slack”, it only feels dirty while you’re doing it.  It never feels dirty when the paycheck hits your bank account every other Friday.

The teams aren’t stupid either.  They realize it’s “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”, so they go ahead and become part-time employers in an effort to retain as much good will as possible with the local media.  In Baltimore alone, I can count 13 people in radio, TV or newspaper who have drawn a paycheck from either the baseball or football team in recent years.

WNST became the city’s media renegades when we pulled off Free The Birds.  We’re the long haired guitar player in high school that the cheerleader was afraid to take home to mom and dad.

Free The Birds made WNST the city’s “bad boys”.  There’s no sense in running from that fact.

And, yet, it also made us the only people in town who decided to force the baseball team to shape up — or ship out. That’s our tattoo, I suppose. And as anyone with body ink knows, it becomes part of you forever.

Ever since September 21, 2006, the Orioles have stopped dealing with WNST.

Here we are, though, on the verge of moving into the year 2010, and somehow, we’re still alive.  I’m sure that’s a shock to some people in town.  A lot of folks bet against us after we went head-to-head with the O’s in ’06.

An Orioles PR staffer told me, on March 30, 2008, “I couldn’t care less if I ever see you in the press box again.  Your station is insignificant.  You only have one listener.”

That’s what Free The Birds got us.

Oddly enough, if the baseball organization would have put as much effort into improving themselves over the last 12 years as they have put into pissing on WNST over the last three, they might have more than 15,000 fans in the park on any night that doesn’t include a visit from New York or Boston.

If anything, honestly, they should offer us a private thank-you.

Without September 21, 2006 and Free The Birds, Andy MacPhail might be the special consultant to the owner in Seattle or Los Angeles or Atlanta. He might not have ever been pursued by the Orioles if not for that fan rally.

For years, the Orioles just stumbled and bumbled along, fought with Major League Baseball over a team moving into D.C. and privately scowled at the success of the Ravens.  They weren’t in a hurry to really fix their mistakes because no one in town seemed to care enough to talk about it, write about it or criticize them loudly enough for it.

That all stopped on September 21, 2006 thanks to 2,000 people who said, “We’re fed up with this crap…”

Whether or not you want to believe it’s relative, ALL of the good things that happened to the Orioles on the field of play and in the front office in this decade that’s about to expire have happened SINCE that date — September 21, 2006.

That’s a friggin’ fact.

And the next time one of the Apologists sits around the water cooler and blasts WNST for “fighting with the team”, someone should tell these viperish ass-clowns — like Jack Dunn’s Baby or any of the kool-aid guzzlers at Orioles Hangout or The Loss Column who refuse to use their real name because they’re going for their Pansy Merit Badge — that WNST has helped make their beloved Birds BETTER, not worse. 

It’s fair for me to give the Orioles credit…they DID react positively to Free The Birds.  While they’ve gone out of their way to create heartache for WNST behind-the-scenes, it must be noted – in all fairness – that they’ve privately responded to the fan rally by working hard to improve themselves.  They still have a long way to go and there’s almost never a month that goes by without the club making some kind of strange decision or two, but an honest and fair evaluator — like me — will note they’ve made improvements since Free The Birds.

They’re still cheap and they’re still falling short on their promise to spend that MASN money and they’re still far too interested in complaining about things like “we can’t compete in the American League East…waaah….waaah….”  But little by little, you can start to really see a glimmer of hope.  That hope took life on September 21, 2006.

That’s the reason we did it in the first place.  On Hart Road, we’ve always known that Free The Birds was “a win”.  And by getting better and working harder to appease the fans, the Orioles are proving that point for us.

Do we get a plaque or a trophy or anything?  I guess we don’t.

A lot of sports events took place in Baltimore during this decade.

None of those events, though, created the impact of Free The Birds.

And that’s not a low blow…it’s a fact.