A Baseball Region in Crisi

April 19, 2007 | WNST Interns

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself in Southern York County, Pennsylvania attempting to find the Orioles-Devil Rays game on MASN2.  However, as Nestor sat behind home plate that evening, holding up “Free The Birds” signs for everyone back home to see, I was relegated to watching the Washington Nationals play the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium on MASN.  For you see, apparently MASN2 is unavailable in York County, Pa., as well as neighboring Adams and Lancaster Counties.  This is interesting to me for two reasons.

The first reason is that Southern Pennsylvania used to be (and maybe still is, but it’s hard to see signs of it anywhere) Baltimore Orioles country.  As someone who lives near the “border”, I have spent a great deal of my life working in and around this region.  As far back as I remember, there were lots of Orioles fans in the region.  Not just casual fans, either, but people who would actually spend time and money to journey south down the I-83 corridor to see home games, whether at Memorial Stadium or Oriole Park.  The baseball fans of York were proud to call themselves O’s fans, and they would gladly recall the area’s connection to the franchise with the long-forgotten minor league affiliate, the York White Roses.  Brooks Robinson got his professional career started in York.  Many future players began their journey to Baltimore and “The Show” in York.  There are probably three generations of Orioles fans in the area.

But you can’t get MASN2 on the regional cable system, apparently.  So, if after years of being ignored and downright forgotten, someone in Southern Pennsylvania is still an O’s fan, if they’re broadcast on MASN2, you’re out of luck.  Better get MLB.com.  Or Season Ticket, or whatever it’s called.  Which raises the obvious question: how did this happen?  How have the Orioles ignored this market, especially in light of the Nationals’ presence thirty miles south of Camden Yards?  Many residents in Southern Pennsylvania are Phillies fans; it only takes a half-hour longer to drive there and watch National League baseball in a brand-spankin’-new ballpark.  Which happens to feature a pretty exciting ballclub that has a solid core of young stars: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, etc.  And as Nestor can attest, it’s easy to be a fan of both an AL team and an NL team, especially when they’re in close proximity.  So as attendance at Oriole Park continues to dwindle, and so much attention is given to all the fans between Baltimore and Washington who the Orioles have “lost” to the Nats, wouldn’t it make sense to re-dedicate their marketing efforts to people who never stopped being Oriole fans?  Turn your eyes and marketing dollars to the North, O’s.  And find a place for MASN2 on the local cable provider.

Which brings me to my second point.  Watching the Nats-Braves game from RFK, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of empty seats.  This is their third season in the District.  Where are the fans?  Granted, RFK is a complete dump in a sketchy neighborhood.  And the Nats, on the whole, stink.  But after all the campaigning and promises from MLB and District officials to move the franchise from Montreal, with the new stadium under construction along the Anacostia, the fan base is missing.  I realize early season mid-week games are tough sells for teams because of weather, kids in school, etc., but watching that telecast, I kept asking myself one question: Where are all the baseball fans in the region?  Or, better yet, are there really enough baseball fans in the region to honestly support two franchises?

Consider: The announced attendance for that Nats-Braves game was 17,791.  There may have been 10,000 actually in the stadium, by the looks of it.  Washington will play next year in a new, publicly financed (again) ballpark that will seat 41,000 fans (at a staggering cost of $611 million).  Over their past three home dates this week, the Nats have averaged just 17,500 fans.  That means there are approximately 23,500 fans who wanted baseball back in the District who aren’t going to games.  Will they magically appear next season for all 81 home games?  Probably, because of the allure of the new stadium and all that accompanies such events.  But should the franchise continue to flounder, by 2010 or 2011 I guarantee you the old argument about D.C. not being a baseball town will emerge again.

And if you think that because the Nats stink, that will bring fans back from that area to Camden Yards, you’re kidding yourself.  Peter Angelos did such a complete hatchet job on D.C.’s attempt to acquire a team, he permanently alienated a large group of fans who used to “bleed black and orange”.  I know plenty of people from the surrounding counties of the District, and they sound a familiar refrain: If Angelos gets out, I’ll get back in.

Factor in the fact that the Orioles are averaging about 28,000 fans per game less than a sellout, and the question comes up again: Where are all of the baseball fans in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network’s region?  Will they magically re-appear when the weather finally warms up, or when the teams win, or when there’s a bobblehead promotion?  Where are they?

Or were there ever that many in the first place?

Comments, questions and opposing points of view are always welcome at mark@wnst.net.