Finally, O's fans get fired up: Brawl serves as wake-up call at Camden Yards

For the Baltimore Orioles, there was a lot of good that came out of Tuesday night’s Manny Machado beaning and the bench-clearing brawl that ensued.

First off, the team got lit, as Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis hit back-to-back bombs right after the brouhaha, and Adam Jones followed suit to lead off the next inning en route to a 9-1 beatdown of the defending-champion Royals. On top of that, Machado will be suspended, which will give the O’s an everyone-thinks-we-can’t-do-it chip on their shoulder and, as anyone who follows Baltimore knows, that chip will likely pay dividends. But just as important, if not more, was how cranked up the crowd got.

It’s been a weird year at Camden Yards. One of the premier ballparks in all of sports, located in one of our nation’s best baseball towns, the place can be an absolute earthquake, like it was back in the 2014 playoffs when this happened. You’d think that despite a down year in 2015, the aftershock of two postseason appearances in three seasons -- not to mention the general renaissance of Orioles baseball in the Buck Showalter era, and the re-signing of home-run king Davis -- would be more than enough to keep the joint jumping. But that simply hasn’t been the case.

Through Tuesday, the Orioles were in first place in the AL East with a 34-23 record that was second best in the American League, and fourth best in baseball. In news that should be related but isn’t, the O’s were averaging 23,904 fans per home game, which ranks 23rd in the majors. That’s just behind the Twins (22nd) and just ahead of the Braves (24th), two teams that have combined for 33 wins, or exactly as many W’s as the Birds have all by themselves. And yet Baltimore, the only current division leader besides Cleveland that’s not in the top half of MLB attendance, is on pace to draw less than 2 million for just the fifth time in 25 seasons at Camden Yards.

Some silver anniversary present.

It’s easy to make excuses. The weather’s been crappy and school is still in session. It’s the residual effect from last year’s .500 finish. The nearby Nationals have put a major dent in the Birds’ fan base over the past decade. And while all those things are true, it’s hard not to think that the Orioles should be drawing better. Hard not to think that fans should be caring more.

After an unimaginably dreary spring that delivered seemingly biblical amounts of rain, the weather has turned damn near perfect over the last couple weeks. Just in time for a juicy 10-game homestand against the division rival Yankees and Red Sox, and the World Series champion Royals, the same team that bounced the Birds in the 2014 ALCS. Yet with only one game left on said homestand, the O’s have topped 30,000 just twice. And Tuesday night, even though it was umbrella night (free to first 20,000 fans 15 and over), wasn’t one of those games. In fact, the ticket takers at Camden Yards had trouble unloading all the umbrellas.

“Used to be, you’d have to get there 45 minutes before game time to guarantee you’re getting the giveaway,” says season-ticket holder Arnie Katz. Tuesday, he and his wife, Ellen, arrived at the Camden Yards parking lot as the national anthem was being sung, and they had no problem getting a pair of parasols as they walked through the turnstiles. Says Katz: “They still had another two cases of them sitting at the gate.”

Again, there are excuses aplenty for what might outwardly appear as a ho-hum homestand, attendance-wise. The Yankees aren’t the Yankees and therefore aren’t the big road draw they typically are. O’s fans, hesitant to put full faith in a deeply flawed starting rotation, would rather wait for the other shoe to drop than commit. Better to have never loved at all than to have loved and lost. Or something like that.

But all those excuses -- all the apathy -- seemed to fly out the window Tuesday night the moment that Machado charged the mound.

“Man-ny, Man-ny, Man-ny,” chanted the crowd, which over the previous couple innings had grown unusually boisterous. It was as if Yordano Ventura's second-inning fastball fly-by -- a 98 mph heater that just missed Machado and resulted in the superstar slugger barking at Ventura as he sauntered down the first base line after flying out -- had raised their antennae at attention.

When play resumed after the fifth-inning brawl and the first two batters, Trumbo and Davis, cranked back-to-back jacks -- no really, this actually happened -- the place went bananas.

“It was more like the playoff series against Detroit and K.C.,” says lifelong O’s fan Larry Lichter, “or like a Ravens game where you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the next blow, the next dinger, the next show of support for Manny.”

The banana-thon continued into the sixth inning, when Jones led off with another bomb, and lasted all the way to the bitter end (and I do mean bitter):

As they flooded the exits following the final out, O’s fans booed the very mention of Ventura’s name when P.A. announcer Ryan Wagner announced the game’s losing pitcher. And all because of one fateful pitch over an hour earlier.

Says Lichter: “The brawl brought out a different atmosphere.”

If it sticks around on Wednesday and beyond, perhaps even into October, the Orioles -- and their fans -- will have the Royals to thank.