On August 30, the Delmarva Shorebirds were in a precarious position. But thanks to the prospect of free stuff through a Fan Appreciation Night raffle and a rare Thursday night fireworks show, a crowd of over 6,000 gathered to send the team off to its final road trip to Lakewood. Thus, by a margin of 1,330 fans the Shorebirds avoided their first-ever season where fewer than 200,000 attended the games.
One could blame the locally subpar spring and summer weather – a chilly April turned into a rainy summer that always seemed to time precipitation for the weekends – for the drop-off from last season’s attendance of 207,131. But you can’t do anything about the weather and we still managed 65 openings, 2 more than the league average. The 3,097 per-game average was the second-lowest in franchise history, besting only the 3,072 in 2011.
Honestly, though, I don’t believe weather was the deciding factor.
If you ask me – and by reading this it’s assumed you want my opinion as a renewed half-season ticket holder – the problem lies with the onfield product.
Over the weekend, with a little downtime from spending it with my grandson and his side of my family, I did a little catching up on the SAL to find that Lexington pulled a bit of an upset to win the SAL flag in four games over Lakewood. It was the end of a decade-plus drought for the Legends and it put Delmarva in yet another unique but dubious position: thanks to Lexington’s winning the second half SAL South title it meant that since 2013 every other franchise in the SAL has been in the playoffs at least once. And if you toss out Augusta (last appearance in 2013) the other twelve have made at least once it in just the last four seasons. Toss darts at a dartboard and you should get that sort of probability given two teams from each seven-team division qualify each year, so we must have a special kind of bad karma to miss the playoffs thirteen seasons in a row, and counting.
So I think it’s safe to say that the on-field product provided by the Orioles is lacking, especially since not a single one of their seven minor-league affiliates made the post-season this year. And it’s not just recent history: our “feeder” team in Aberdeen has made the NY-Penn League postseason exactly once in 17 seasons, only to be bounced out in the opening round. (That 2013 Ironbird team had six future SotW Hall of Fame players on the regular roster, as it comprised the base of our 2014 Shorebird team that has the most members of the SotWHoF.) Of course, we’re not going to scrap the Oriole affiliation any time soon so we have to hope that a renewed focus on Baltimore’s international scouting and player development bears fruit 2-3 years from now when these young players reach the full-season A-ball level.
But I also believe their development program is wrong. There are some franchises that develop players as individuals, and some that seem to emphasize winning more. Unfortunately, the “Oriole Way” hasn’t been a winning way since the halcyon days of a half-century ago.
I sat down with one of my favorite websites (Baseball-Reference.com) and did some research on how Oriole affiliates fared in the era when the Orioles were regularly successful – basically from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s. As they went, oftentimes so did their affiliates:
Their lowest-level team in Bluefield had the Appalachian League’s best record or won its division 6 times in 14 seasons from 1963-76.
At the time, their A ball team was in Miami (before MLB expansion gave that city the latter-day edition of the Miami Marlins) and the Marlins/Orioles won their Florida State League division 8 times in 11 seasons from 1968-78.
At the AA level, the affiliation moved several times during that era: from Elmira, New York, then of the Eastern League (1963-68), to Dallas-Fort Worth of the Texas League/Dixie Association (1969-71, until the Washington Senators relocated to that metroplex and became the Texas Rangers), then on to Asheville of the reformed Southern League (1972-75) before the franchise moved to Charlotte for the 1976 season, remaining in the Southern League. But in 14 seasons their AA affiliate was 1st or 2nd in their division 11 times.
Finally, at the AAA level Rochester made the International League playoffs (top 4 qualify) 10 times in 11 seasons from 1966-76.
Obviously at that time the “Oriole Way” was as much about winning games and division/league titles as it was player development. Now they seem to be happy with winning a random league title now and then, and it seems like random doesn’t come our way: we get good players for a few weeks and they are gone to Frederick.
I believe winning comes from a culture where you are expected to win: look at the Patriots or Steelers in the NFL or, closer to home, Salisbury University’s lacrosse program. They don’t seem to accept anything less than a winning effort. The Orioles seem to be fine with developing a player like Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy, or Trey Mancini every year or two (or guys that they trade away for a rare playoff push like Josh Hader, Eduardo Rodriguez, or Zach Davies) but maybe at the expense of the organization players who make up good teams.
So a sea change in attitude at the top is first on the wish list. Now I want to focus a little more locally.
As a half-season ticket holder, I have to say I’m very satisfied with the flexibility I have. Sometimes Kim wants to go to a game so the exchange policy is great – I don’t mind taking a vacation from my spot sometimes. The staff will generally bend over backwards for me, too. And aside from keeping some of the lame video promotions, I do like what they are doing with the interactive aspect of the now two-year-old videoboard. The “Shore Report” is a neat feature made possible by the investment in video equipment, so we can all “turn and watch it go!”
But I have to say that my other big complaint is the food, which has been a pan of mine for at least the last couple years. I don’t often eat at the ballpark, but on those occasions when I did I was too often disappointed with the quality and freshness of what I was served. For example, a hot dog would come with a stale bun, or the fries were too salty.
Adding to the frustration was the lack of availability of some products. A slice of the specialty pizza sounded good – but it wasn’t available that night. I wanted a lid for my souvenir cup, but they were out.
And then I heard horror stories about the wait time on some nights, particularly the scrapple night. Kim got a scrapple sandwich that she had to take back. I think it literally took her 2 1/2 to 3 innings to get back to her seat for a sandwich she still wasn’t really satisfied with. Granted, it was a special night and newly-created menu but that seems to me an issue with management not preparing staff properly.
A bad experience like that, along with a mediocre team that faded not once, but twice, after great starts, isn’t the best way to put casual fans in the seats. Granted, I don’t mind it so much when it’s just the diehards like me but if it comes down to having just them we eventually have an empty stadium because there are fewer and fewer rabid fans each season. Go and count the empty seats in Baltimore for one of their games of late to see what I mean – two straight losing seasons (as well as 14 of the previous 19) and the prospect of rebuilding from just about scratch thanks to a barren minor league system have taken their toll on attendance and interest. A humdrum, bottom-feeding team that plays at a stadium that doesn’t seem to have a great deal to offer in either food or amenities isn’t going to draw well, either. How many of those kids and families who get the “Hit the Books” free tickets in April and May come back over the summer?
However, with the promised construction of the 360-degree concourse on the horizon this off-season, we now have new opportunities for food and entertainment. And maybe it’s time to re-imagine things on an even broader scale.
If the new concourse is designed properly, not only does it open up the possibility of new and different vendors in those locations (imagine covered areas with local vendors, similar in style to a food truck) but even a venue for post-game concerts and entertainment. I know I’ve spoken to Chris Bitters about this as it related to another topic, but maybe it doesn’t necessarily have to be the full-blown shows of years past – maybe a diet of local solo performers can be the impetus to bigger and better things down the road.
And down the road is what I’m thinking of for the broader scale. What if that location were the linchpin of a new entertainment venue?
Once upon a time, I was part of a big dream: the idea of creating a hotel and office park along Hobbs Road, straddling the exit ramp from U.S. 13. Because of the work I helped to do, there’s infrastructure in place to develop the site, even though the collapse of the building market prevented further development a decade ago. They are discussing the site for usage as a new Sheriff’s office, but I must say to waste the opportunity for developing this site as an eating and entertainment venue to complement Perdue Stadium would be criminal.
One reason downtown stadiums are favored is this very opportunity to develop an year-round entertainment district in an area that has the infrastructure in place. My hometown has something along that line: just down the way from Fifth Third Field (home of the Mud Hens) is the Huntington Center, where the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye play. The two were built about seven years apart, but they function as a way to stretch the season for entrepreneurs who want to serve the half-million-plus Mud Hen fans in the summer and over a quarter-million Walleye hockey “finatics” in the fall and winter. (This doesn’t count the other events the Huntington Center hosts, such as concerts.)
But because Perdue Stadium isn’t close to downtown and plans to replace the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center at the stadium site have been shelved, the synergy has to come from something else. It’s obviously a more modest goal, but why couldn’t the LLC that owns the Shorebirds buy those nearby parcels (there are two, owned by the same LLC) and use their connections to bring in two to three attractions that can feed off having the stadium there? (This is where I would have loved to have a fall league team like the onetime Maryland Fall League that featured the Delmarva Rockfish, to give an extra 20 dates a year for the stadium.) Even some places that a family can go to in the afternoon before the game or a couple can go to afterward would be nice.
Another possibility: the new concourse becomes the passage between the stadium and a new building along the right field line. [Granted, this is a homage to Toledo’s Fifth Third Field (pictured below), although our version need only be tall enough to have the seating and deck overlooking the field.]
If the Orioles can have fireworks in downtown Baltimore, I’m sure something can be worked out in that event.
Certainly I’m glad the Shorebirds are finally going to get the 360-degree concourse they’ve been talking about for the last half-decade. But that should be just the beginning of rebuilding the team both on and off the field to bring back those days where a Shorebird ticket was a hot commodity.