Last August, general manager Mike Elias saw a rocketing trajectory for the Orioles: “I think it’s liftoff from here for this team.”

For Nick Tomasino, a 43-year-old father of two in Baltimore, that sentiment might as well have been a starting gun. For the last decade or so, he had casually bought tickets game by game, a relative luxury for a team that has made the playoffs only twice since he started to become a fan. Seats were cheap and plentiful. Almost any given night, he and his family could spontaneously head to Camden Yards.

But between a 10-game winning streak in July 2022 and the organization’s brash declarations that an arduous rebuild was ending, this offseason, Tomasino decided to take the season-ticket plunge. His 12-year-old son, Noah, is a baseball fanatic — and Nick couldn’t imagine denying his sprouting young superfan the chance to go to the postseason. Season-ticket holders get the best shot at seats for the playoffs.

“If there turns out to be like a home playoff game in this city this fall and we’re not there, I would definitely have regrets,” Tomasino told me. “We’ve suffered through enough. I’m certainly not going to miss the opportunity.”

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The time to buy in’

It should be no surprise that the Orioles’ surge in the MLB standings is being closely tailed by a surge in attendance. Through the team’s first 33 home games, it has averaged 20,469 fans, about a 28.8% increase from the same point last season. That’s an average of 4,578 more fans per contest — far from the heights of the mid-2010s run of the last competitive Orioles teams but a sizable bump for a franchise that hasn’t averaged over 20,000 fans since 2017.

The Orioles declined to release more substantive numbers such as season-ticket sales to The Baltimore Banner, but the swell is being felt, especially on weekends as the city readies for summer days that could pack the park. Several fans who spoke to The Banner about deciding to buy tickets cited Elias’ now-famous “liftoff” sound bite as a call to action. It was time to get aboard before the ascent really began.

Ryan Blake, 28, has attended games every year, but he got a 29-game package this season to help him plan ahead and ensure postseason tickets. Just as critical, his fiancee is now a fan, too.

“To the potential cynics out there: This is the time to buy in,” he said. “I have no problem with people who want to come out when the Orioles are good — I get that. But I want to be able to say I saw the change happen.”

The pandemic era has skewed attendance numbers of the last few years, but Baltimore baseball has been at its nadir for a while. In 2019, the Orioles averaged just 16,146 fans per home game as the team slogged through a second straight 100-loss season. It was by far the low-water mark of the Camden Yards era.

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Baseball in general is trying to recover audience and relevance — a desperation shown in changes to a game that has classically clung to traditions. Overall attendance is up 8% this season throughout baseball, and fans have seemed receptive to changes such as the pitch clock, which has cut game times by nearly half an hour.

But for the Orioles the attraction is winning baseball and young talent. Several who spoke to the Banner said they were moved to buy season packages once Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez were called up.

Michael Wrobel Jr. has watched these prospects at minor league games closer to his Easton home for years when the only bright thing about Orioles baseball was the future. He bought tickets in Section 83 for his parents this season, and he plans on catching a few more himself.

“Baltimore’s a baseball town. It’s a beautiful sight,” he told me. “I want to be there. I’m not missing out.”

A slow build back

In the 1990s, during the Cal Ripken heyday, it was common for more than 3 million fans to visit Camden Yards annually. The Orioles haven’t hit that mark since 2001 (among many factors, the Washington Nationals arrived in 2005). Last season, only 1.37 million fans passed through the gates, just a slight bump from 2019.

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Cathy Brennan, a 52-year-old attorney in Rodgers Forge, has attended through some of these lonely times with her wife and children. They had good seats behind home plate, concession lines were short and she has a soft spot for Baltimore institutions. But games that matter are a lot more fun, she admitted.

One of the most fun games she’s seen this year was when Cedric Mullins hit for the cycle — but just as important, the Orioles beat the first-place Tampa Bay Rays. Add that to promotions such as the Bird Bath, and baseball games are suddenly a rocking event.

“Honestly, the feeling of ‘this is exciting’ started late last year, and that energy came into this season,” Brennan said. “In the past, it felt like they would lose every game we went to. This season, there’s been banger games with the energy in the crowd.”

There are still a lot of seats to fill. The highest average attendance in the previous decade came when Baltimore made the postseason twice with franchise players such as Manny Machado and Adam Jones. Camden Yards had at least 29,000 fans per game in three straight seasons from 2013 to 2015.

These days, the upper reserve beyond the recently reshaped left-field wall is completely vacant — the Orioles don’t sell tickets for the section. Weeknight draws, especially with school in session, have been weak: Two recent games against the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday and Wednesday drew under 12,000 fans each.

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Drawing fans back in can take time. In 2012, when the Orioles jumped from 69 wins to 93, attendance rose nearly 20%, but it didn’t peak until two years later when Baltimore drew 30,426 fans per game.

Selling skeptics on the future

Attendance trails performance, and the franchise’s history of struggling to turn hot seasons into sustainability has bred more than a few cynics.

Jamie Smith, a 54-year-old who lives in North Baltimore, attends regularly on a game-by-game basis. He enjoys weeknight games when he can buy spur of the moment and “have my pick of the place.” As much as he enjoys seeing the Orioles vault back into the playoff race this season, he still fills out a survey when he buys tickets that asks, “Do you agree that the Orioles are committed to winning a championship?” and gives the team the lowest rating. He’d like to see stars such as Rutschman get long-term contracts before he changes his mind.

“We’ve gotten this far with smart drafting and player development,” he said. “But to me [signing stars to extensions] signifies a commitment to winning a championship. You can only get so far without spending.”

Meesha Kauffman, a 40-year-old who lives in Abingdon, also has some cynicism. She’s gone to games since childhood, but, “I hate giving money to the Angelos family.” Although she’s yet to purchase season tickets, it’s something she’s considering before next season. Birdland memberships include flexible ticket exchange and discounts on concessions (which Kauffman said is a big expense these days). She appreciates the flexibility without a plan, but she notices how pricey certain games such as Ryan Mountcastle bobblehead night are.

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“I’m going a lot, so sometime in the future I might as well just make that commitment,” she said. “As the team continues to grow in the trajectory they’re on, you want to be a part of it and be sure you can get the seats you want.”

For Tomasino, there’s a sentimental aspect, too. He grew up a Mets fan, but after moving to Maryland he grew into Orioles fandom (“I was predisposed to dislike the Yankees,” he told me). His relationship to the sport has evolved as Noah has gotten more invested.

“Now we’re coming here to see a real team,” he said. “It just feels special.”