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Adam Jones sparks rebirth of Orioles at gate
Connecting with the younger baseball fans in the mid-Atlantic area has not been difficult for the Baltimore Orioles, a team whose youthful exuberance is perhaps best symbolized by the interactive Twitter account of star centerfielder Adam Jones. But it took the Orioles making an old-fashioned — and lucrative — long-term commitment to Jones to begin capturing the attention of those old enough to remember the Orioles' world championship teams.
The Orioles entered this year having endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, the second-longest streak in Major League Baseball, but have been among the biggest first half surprises in the game. The Orioles have been in first or second place in the AL East for all but six days and lead the wild card race even after getting swept this week by the New York Mets.
The success has translated into bigger crowds at Camden Yards, where the Orioles are averaging 24,562 fans per game — an increase of 4,381 over last year's average. The surge at the gate really began Friday, May 25, when news leaked that the Orioles were close to signing Jones to a six-year contract extension worth $85.5 million.
The Orioles drew 28,954 fans for their May 25 game against the Kansas City Royals — including almost 11,000 fans who bought tickets after 5 p.m. It was the largest "walk-up" crowd in the 20-year history of Camden Yards.
"I didn't know that," Jones told TicketNews before the Orioles' game against the Mets at Citi Field Tuesday, June 19. "That's awesome."
"It was a culmination of [the contract] and it was a legitimate day in Camden — 80 degrees, it was a great day to come out and watch baseball," Jones said. "To know about it now, that's pretty awesome."
Almost a month later, the cause-and-effect between Jones' extension and larger crowds at Camden Yards remains striking. The Orioles have averaged 32,909 fans in nine games since the news broke (Jones' extension was officially announced Sunday, May 27). They averaged just 21,657 fans in their first 24 home games.
While the Orioles have benefited from playing the Royals on Memorial Day weekend and their local interleague rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies, the weekend of June 8-10, they also drew crowds of 23,238 and 29,995 to a pair of midweek games against the Pittsburgh Pirates — the only team in baseball with a longer streak of consecutive losing seasons — on Wednesday, June 13 and Thursday, June 14.
"I think we've just got to keep doing what we're doing: Play good baseball," Jones said. "Fans see it and they notice it. The ballpark's been filling up, and more on random Tuesdays. We've just got to keep playing good, competitive baseball. That's a city that wants to see a winner and we're on the right path to that."
The Orioles last made the playoffs in 1997, back when Jones and most of the other Orioles players weren't even teenagers yet – in fact, just one current Oriole, reliever Luis Ayala, was in pro ball at that time. According to ESPN.com, the Orioles are the ninth-youngest team in baseball this year, and the youngest in the AL East, with an average age of 28.4.
The oldest team in baseball is the New York Yankees, who are 2 ½ games ahead of the Orioles in the AL East with a roster whose average age is 31.7 years old. The Orioles' environment is as collegial as the Yankees is corporate: Hours before the Orioles played the Mets Tuesday, infielder Mark Reynolds operated a remote control helicopter while playing cards with three teammates.
Jones, meanwhile, has 41,577 followers on Twitter, where he communicates with fans of the Orioles and their opponents alike. Such an approach coupled with his impressive performance this year (Jones is hitting .302 with 18 homers, 39 RBI and nine stolen bases through Wednesday, June 20) has helped put him in the running to become the first Orioles players since 2005 to start for the American League in the All-Star Game. As of Monday, June 18, Jones was fourth among outfielders in the AL All-Star balloting, less than 40,000 votes behind third-place Jose Bautista.
"It's cool — the people that pay their money to come see you, they reach out and through social media they're able to tell you how much they appreciate you and appreciate how you play the game," Jones said.
While the "millennial" fans have clicked with the Orioles, it'll be the long-time fans who will be most appreciative — and who will help the Orioles sustain their recent surge at the gate — if Jones can lead the Orioles back to the playoffs.
The Orioles made the playoffs six times in a nine-year span from 1966 through 1974, during which they reached the World Series four times and won it twice, and finished first or second in the AL East 13 times in the 15 years between 1969 and 1983. But the Orioles haven't been to the World Series since they last won it all in 1983, a stretch exceeded in the American League by only the Seattle Mariners, who have never made the World Series.
"We have a new following now — [ages] 16 to 30, we have a lot of young followers who really enjoy the game," Jones said. "We just want to get everybody out to the Yard and bring back the old-time fans that really want to see us succeed. But have to prove [it to] them. The newer guys, we convinced them a little easier, But the diehards, the long time Orioles fans are the ones that we really have to convince that we're a team that's going to stick around and be competitive."