David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Those in attendance Thursday night at Camden Yards must have thought they had stumbled into some kind of cosmic wormhole along Eutaw Street and been transported back to 1997.
Despite the Orioles' shock-the-world season, the ballpark was filled to capacity for only the sixth time this year -- the others being two games against the Phillies (easy commute from Philadelphia), a pair against the Nationals (Beltway showdown) and Opening Day.
On Thursday, the turnout could be attributed to Cal Ripken Jr. Day, which featured a statue unveiling beyond the centerfield wall and an on-field ceremony before the game. Along with that, the nostalgia meter was set to 11, as roughly 80 percent of the crowd was sporting the Orioles' orange.
The question is: Where has everyone been? Ocean City for the summer?
Through Friday, the Orioles were ranked 23rd with an average attendance of 25,470 and 25th at filling only 56.1 percent of the ballpark's 45,971 capacity. With 13 home dates left, the Orioles are on pace to draw just over two million.
Back in 1997, the year of Baltimore's last playoff appearance, which included the AL East title, the Orioles topped the majors in attendance with a turnout of 3,711,132. Historically, Baltimore has done two things great: crabcakes and baseball. The players are hungry, but it appears the populace is still working up an appetite for the latter.
"Well, this is 2012, and it's more than one factor," said Adam Jones, the All-Star centerfielder. "The Nationals are taking 30 to 40 percent of the fan base. They're playing well. Why wouldn't the fans want to go to that game? It's closer. It's completely understandable. It's just the market that the teams are in."
Nationals Park and Camden Yards are only 38 miles apart.
The Nationals were packaged and moved from Montreal in 2005, but it's not as if baseball was new to D.C. It previously had the Senators -- and as Jones alluded to, still has the advantage of being located next to a highly populated downtown area where fans can jump on the Metro straight from work rather than hike all the way out to Baltimore.
Through Friday, the first-place Nationals were 14th in average attendance (29,778) with a total of 2,024,952 after 68 home dates. That's a significant edge on the Orioles, and a margin that would take a lot more appearances by Ripken to close.
"It's really cool there is a connection to the past," Ripken said. "I know that Buck [Showalter] is doing many other things in his thought process to bridge that and see the value in that. But ultimately, it's success -- success on the field at the big-league level. You're selling winning. I think it's as simple as that. Keep playing meaningful games in September. This is a great baseball town. They'll be back."
Jones would like to believe that's the case, but he also has encountered resentment from fans bitter about 14 consecutive losing seasons. That comes in part from being plugged into social media -- his Twitter handle is @SimplyAJ10.
"I know a lot of people email my Twitter account with anger toward ownership," Jones said. "They've started some walkouts at Camden Yards. I think the fan base doesn't like the ownership. I'm like, don't worry about that. Worry about the product that's on the field. I just want to play good baseball and play in front of your home fans. That's all we want as athletes.
"In the first half, people were saying, 'These guys ain't going to do nothing.' But now we're maintaining it. Now these are important games you should be at."