In praise of the hometown crowd
May 30, 2013
The comeback victory was complete. Jim Johnson recorded an easy save, and Chris Davis completed his post-game interview while covered in a double serving of shaving cream pie. Still, I wasn't ready to let go of what I had just experienced, albeit second-hand by way of radio and TV. I went back to the highlight of Davis's second home run - the one that earned him an extra serving of shaving cream pie and capped the Orioles' seventh-inning rally - and told my wife, "Listen to the crowd."
Had I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was dreaming about my baseball town. The new reality in Baltimore is that on certain nights you can once more feel the energy that had been missing for too long from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Wednesday night was one of those nights.
Baseball has all manner of fan gimmicks to stir up the home crowd. The originals are simple - my two-year-old already shouts "Charge" when he hears that familiar horn rhythm - and therefore used less often. More frequent are the many variations of videoboard graphics and accompanying sound effects that speak (shout?) to the same theme: Make some noise. Lots of it. Better yet, stand up and cheer.
Ironically, some of these motivational efforts do more to divide a crowd than to inspire it. Even successful new gimmicks fall quickly out of favor as novelty is lost and enthusiasm follows it out the door.
Take that Seven Nation Army cheer, the one that dominates college and professional sports alike these days. Judging by reactions I see on Twitter, some fans would rather relegate it to a dusty Jock Rock compilation than have it included as part of the ballpark playlist. That's not even to mention the wave, which, while it does arise organically from the crowd, leaves many a purist with a toxic taste in his mouth.
Forget music. Forget graphics. Forget two drunk guys standing up and counting "1.2.3." The best crowd moments are those which are inspired by either an appreciation for what just happened or an anticipation of what's still to come. By the time of Davis's seventh-inning at-bat, fans in Baltimore had provided a bit of both.
The Orioles scored four times in the frame to claim a lead that appeared unthinkable two innings earlier when Ryan Zimmerman's third home run gave the Nationals a 6-2 lead. When Davis went deep to extend that lead by two runs, fans had received all they had hoped for and more. The roof had come off the open-air stadium.
During the darkest of days in Baltimore baseball's recent history, even the simple strains of the "Charge" cheer might produce as many echoes as actual responses. Camden Yards had become so bereft of atmosphere that Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck wrote a column from the upper deck without fear of interruption in 2006. The accompanying photo of the writer adrift amidst a sea of green seats illustrated how deep fan morale had sunk.
It will take a lot of winning for the Orioles to reach the peak levels of interest that existed in the early Camden Yards years, a time when sellouts - and victories - were the expectation regardless of the opponent. Perhaps it's better this way.
What you typically gain in attendance you lose in attention to the game as the ballpark becomes "the place to be" rather than the place to be for the game. In its place we get nights like Wednesday - and last season's game against the Yankees when Cal's statue was unveiled - when the opponent and the moment reveal a collective enthusiasm left entirely unguarded.
The term "playoff atmosphere" has become cliche. Then again, so have most descriptions of engaged baseball crowds. You can only use the term "electric" or related energy metaphors so many times before the words become stale. Sometimes a simple, straightforward declaration will suffice - "And the fans at Camden Yards are on their feet." In special cases, it's better to not say anything at all and let the moment speak for itself. Think 2131. Show, don't tell.
That's why I wanted to listen to a highlight rather than watch it.
I'm not ready to declare that 14 years of losing were worth the wait for these kinds of moments. I'll reserve that level of hyperbole for when the Orioles claim a prize bigger than a midweek game in May. However, those 14 years allow me to better appreciate the enthusiasm that was on display at the ballpark Wednesday night. I'm glad to have it back.