“Free The Birds” Four Years Later: Have the Orioles improved?

September 21, 2010 | Drew Forrester

Four years ago today, nearly 2,000 baseball fans gathered at Camden Yards to voice and show their dismay with the Orioles franchise.  It was a unified gathering of people who grew up loving the baseball team in town.  Most everyone who attended the game – known as “Free The Birds” – had experienced at least one Orioles world championship in their lifetime.  I’m now old enough, proud enough and sad enough to report to you that I fully experienced the ’83 title as a dyed-in-the-wool Orioles fan who went to all four home playoff games that year.

I was there on September 21, 2006 as part of “Free The Birds”.

I’m still here today, thankfully, and ready to tackle the issue of whether or not things have improved at Camden Yards and The Warehouse over the last 48 months.

The answer is a resounding YES, things have improved.

To me, there’s no arguing that.

How MUCH they’ve improved is subject to your own individual interpretation and assessment.  Personally, I’d label the improvement “modest”. One definition of the term “modest improvement” is: “not extreme”.  And I think that’s VERY fair.  The Orioles have made improvements over the last four years but to say that improvement has been extreme would be overselling it.  Hence, the “not extreme” definition fits well in my opinion.

And I’ll repeat it one more time because I know how some of you people like to pick and choose what you read, discuss and re-tweet:  I think the Orioles have improved since Free The Birds took place four years ago today.

Has that improvement been enough for the disgruntled fan base?  Based on the attendance of the last four years, I’d say it has not.  This year’s attendance (21,466 average) is down 2,000 per-game over 2009 and, with only four home games left, there’s almost no doubt the team is going to finish 24th in the league in attendance.  The real kick in the ‘nads?  Both Washington and Tampa Bay will outdraw the Orioles this year.

The fan base no longer attending the games but-still-in-love-with-the-game-of baseball-and-the-Orioles probably quadruples the actual amount of people in the marketplace who still go to the games at Camden Yards.  Yes, I’d guess there are at least 100,000 or so who have “sworn off” the team during this 13-years of losing that has been marred not only by poor play on the field but an excruciatingly poor job at public and media relations.

People in Baltimore have stopped going to the baseball games at Camden Yards.

That’s not a low blow…that’s just a fact.

But since Free The Birds, things have been on the uptick in The Warehouse.  Not long after nearly 2,000 filed out of the stadium en masse in the 5th inning of that Thursday afternoon game against Detroit, small signs of hope started to emerge.  Andy MacPhail took over in 2007, essentially serving as the club’s GM and being the man completely in charge of rebuilding the franchise.  He brought forth a highly publicized “plan” that would take him through his initial 4-year obligation with the club.  The plan was a recipe that included everything from keeping a few of your own good players to drafting young pitching to taking the odd gamble on a reclamation project to doing it all by spending the least amount of money possible and – mainly – offering a reasonable promise that just nurturing the plant a little more carefully would spark enough growth to convince the fans things were steadily improving.  In all fairness, MacPhail has basically sold a lot of hope since he showed up in June of ’07.  And I think it’s fair to say that Andy’s done a good job – overall – since he assumed his role 41 months ago.  A lot of things were broken in the Orioles organization when Andy took over.  Some of them remain broken.  Some of them, frankly, he doesn’t have the authority to fix.  MacPhail only runs the baseball part of the organization.  He doesn’t really “run the whole place”.  So while a number of operational elements remain flawed at The Warehouse, MacPhail’s done a good job so far of handling the affairs he can influence the most.

MacPhail hasn’t done a great job.

He’s done a good job.  Nothing more.  His grade to date would be a B.  Given his acumen and regal-like status in baseball, most followers expected a more meteoric rise from the Orioles.  It’s been slow…painfully so at times…and the losing led to an in-season managerial change that showed the true depths of MacPhail’s concerns that perhaps the rebuilding effort was going to end up being futile.

The team still hasn’t won more games than it lost in his four years at the helm.  If not for a near-miracle-like recovery over the last 50 games of the season, the Birds would have lost well over 100 games in 2010.  That they’re now on the cusp of avoiding a triple-digit losing season – they need to only go 3-8 from here on in – is literally a stunner.  All credit to MacPhail, Buck Showalter and the players for giving Baltimore baseball fans a decent August and September for the first time in forever.

There will be a lot of interest and heightened enthusiasm for Orioles baseball 2011 throughout the winter.  You can best your orange-rear right now the Birds will be a lot of the expert’s “sexy pick” in all the spring training magazines next March.

I have no idea if MacPhail will actually try to improve the team in the off-season, but I know this is the first winter in a long, long time where the team will actually finish the season on such a high note that off-season baseball discussions will actually be meaningful.

I don’t know what influence Free The Birds has on that claim, but I sure know anything beats the hell out of finishing the year 4-32 or 9-23 and limping home like Barbaro.

Baseball-wise, things have improved in Baltimore.

On the field, there’s hope.  It might still be slight hope – at its best – but there’s a smidgen of light at the end of the 13-year tunnel.

Off the field, the fighting and nit-picky stuff still goes on between the front office and – well – just about everyone except the folks writing them a check to air the games…and the club’s archaic policies on player-relations with the media is one of the root-causes of the market’s disconnect with the team as a whole.

They wouldn’t know player/media-marketing if it was a bad hop grounder that hit them in the nuts.

As Jay-Z sings in “Reminder” — “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t…”

The numbers say attendance is down nearly 2,000 per-game with four home games left.  Just as it’s fair to say “if the team WINS more games this year than last (which, they will) that they’ve improved”, it’s also accurate to point out that when LESS people are attending the games now than they did last year, front office operations and marketing and PR must have gone the other way on the scale.

Four years ago, almost 2,000 people sat in the upper deck, enjoyed themselves for about 90 minutes, then got up as a group and walked out.

It was a national story.

It forever changed the relationship of WNST and the Orioles organization.  Even people who are affiliated with the station now who weren’t with us on 9/21/2006 are still linked by association alone.

It was, however, the right thing to do.

The station – and maybe I should just speak for myself here…so I will:  My job as a sports talk host has not changed or been influenced one bit by the Orioles shoddy treatment of me and the scraps we’ve had over media credentials and access with the players.  They’ve lost FAR more in ticket sales than I would have gained in anything else by not allowing Jeremy Guthrie or Brian Roberts or Luke Scott to come on my show (and anyone else in town who does this thing called radio and falls victim to their silly rules) to talk baseball the way the Ravens – since August alone – have allowed Sam Koch, Morgan Cox, Jason Phillips, Marshal Yanda, Kelly Gregg, Terrence Cody, Antwan Barnes and Tavares Gooden to appear with me live on The Morning Reaction.

Drew and or/WNST Radio isn’t costing the Orioles ticket buyers.

They’re costing themselves ticket buyers.

Most folks in town are only concerned about one thing and that’s winning.  I’m the same way from a fan standpoint, but given my background and what I know about the importance of good attendance and revenue for the team and the city, I’m always concerned with a team’s revenue and their ability to put people in the seats.

You can do the easy math on the team’s 2010 attendance:  If they’re 2,000 per-game down and the average ticket price is $24.00 (and some change), that’s $48,000 per-game x 81 games or a total of $3.8 million just in sales alone.  That’s $380,000 in taxes (10% of the gross, due to the state) the government of Maryland loses out on.  That money would or could be used for new jobs or new programs to benefit all of us who live here.  It’s REAL money.  It’s $380,000 that the state won’t get this year that they got last year just because 160,000 of you decided NOT to go to the baseball stadium for one or more of their 81 home games this year.

And if they’re off by $3.8 million in ticket sales, it’s fairly safe to assume that most other revenue-generating elements of the club are down given both the economy and the slide in interest based on attendance figures.

Diminishing revenues aren’t often answered by increasing spending, a fact the club has proved over the last few years when they’ve done little or nothing in the free agent market.

My point to all of that money-related garbage?  Making less money at the ballpark isn’t good for anyone.  It’s a problem that deserves attention from even the most casual fan because you, ultimately, will be asked to make up the shortfall in the next year or two with a craftily-worded press release that announces ticket prices must go up to “keep in line with the rest of the teams in the league”.

There is good news, though, on some fronts:  The O’s do have a new spring training facility in Sarasota (funded mainly by the Sarasota tax-payers) and their efforts in the Dominican and in the Far East have become actual expense numbers now instead of something the team could pay off with their corporate American Express card.  So to say the team isn’t spending “new money” under MacPhail would be inaccurate.  But to say the team is spending MORE money on its major league roster – the ones the fans pay to come out and watch 81 games a year – would also be inaccurate.

Like I said from the outset, things have improved with the Orioles.

It’s been modest.

Nothing more, really.

The proof is in the pudding, so far.  A few more wins than a year ago should give everyone a breath of renewed winter hope.  But the attendance and overall interest in the team shows fans are still slow to buy in.

I don’t blame them, I suppose.

I was at the game on September 21, 2006.  I was disgruntled.  I still am, with certain issues.

But I’m also fair and smart enough to recognize that improvements have been made and maybe, just maybe, Free The Birds had some relevant influence on those improvements.

Free The Birds was the right thing to do.

The time was right.

The cause was right.

People who were there should feel right for having done something to put the team on watch —  “This isn’t going to fly anymore.”

I know I was right for being there, no matter what has happened since then between myself and the organization.

The Orioles, though, need only to win for themselves and the joke will be on everyone else.  Or will it?

All we want is a winner.

Over the last four years, the Orioles haven’t produced one, but they’re closer to doing it now than they’ve been in a long time.

You’re welcome.