Long before all of the 44,326 fans had crammed into Camden Yards on Saturday evening — before the 1983 Orioles reunited to raucous applause and before the modern-day team would crush the Mets 7-3 — Les and Ronnie Hammond were taking in the slowly cooling Baltimore afternoon from the perch of the third tier of Oriole Park.

The Windsor Mill couple are longtime Orioles fans. Les used to play baseball, and Ronnie, he joked, has to love baseball because she’s stuck with him. But, as excited as they were for the evening’s festivities and the prospect of the American League’s best team continuing its run, they couldn’t help but eye the seats beneath them — almost every seat was, actually, beneath them — and feel a little envy.

“I hate it,” Les quipped, with an edge of faux grumpiness.

“As much as I love being at the game,” Ronnie added with a laugh, “I don’t want to be up in the sky.”

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Ryan O’Hearn and Colton Cowser high-five after O’Hearn scores points during the Orioles vs Dodgers game on July 18, 2023 at Camden Yards. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)
Fans are returning to the once-empty upper reserve section in left field. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The funny thing is, the Hammonds were actually sitting in some of the hardest seats to get for Orioles fans the last few years: the left field upper deck.

With historically futile teams and the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few years, Orioles attendance cratered, falling below 20,000 fans per game (less than half capacity) from 2018 on. As a consequence, many Orioles games in the last six seasons (including this one) have had no one sitting in sections 374 to 388.

On many nights, the only spectators in the nosebleeds above left field are ushers, sitting only to make sure no one loiters where they shouldn’t. The concession stands in that part of the park often aren’t open. The resulting eyesore — an empty stretch of green seats framed by the Hilton in the background — has been a reminder of an ugly era of Orioles baseball.

Until recently.

On Saturday night, it was as lively and rollicking as ever: Fans sitting on the edge of the upper deck in the 388 section were hooting in the fifth inning, trying to get the wave started before an Anthony Santander home run to the flag court interrupted them. It was the ballclub’s second straight Saturday night sellout, continuing a promising trend that has seen the Orioles’ attendance rise about a third from this point last season (5,694 more fans per game on average).

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Noah Cohen, a 13-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, attending his first big league ballgame with his uncle Reggie Cohen of Baltimore County, was enthralled with an atmosphere much more intense than he had ever witnessed before.

“This is an amazing experience,” said Noah, an aspiring baseball player himself. “This is where I want to be in the future.”

The upper deck houses all kinds of fans, dedicated and casual alike. In conversations with more than a dozen people on Saturday evening, I came across fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, tourists and diehards. They came from the city, from Baltimore and Harford counties, from Annapolis, from D.C.

Angie and Katie Magiera, a mother and daughter, were wearing Orioles shirts but only as cover. They were visiting Baltimore for the first time from their home state of Nevada. Lifelong Cubs fans, the Magieras bought the T-shirts only to blend in.

“I like to see the home team win,” Angie Magiera said. “As long as they’re not playing the Cubs.”

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However, everyone sitting in these sections that I spoke to had at least one thing in common. Each of them had decided to come to the game that week, from Tuesday through Friday. Nothing accommodates an impulse buy like the cheap seats.

Some were sitting up in the 300s because of the price point. On this particular night, tickets there cost $29 to $45 apiece, made tougher by a sizable crew of Mets fans descending on the park. But for the Hammonds, to their chagrin, they were also the only tickets available the night before the game.

Les Hammond wasn’t a huge fan of his seats — he and Ronnie didn’t mind when they had their pick of the park — but as a faithful fan who goes to as many as two dozen games a year, he’s happy to see the city start to take notice of the red-hot ballclub.

“We’re all talking about it all day at work, and we’re listening to the game at work on the radio,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about winning baseball.”

Larry and Justin Beaver of Bel Air came, in part to honor the 1983 team — the father and son, respectively, were wearing jerseys from the 30-year reunion of the last World Series squad. They feel a deep attachment to the current roster because they had watched them grow up in the farm system with the Aberdeen Ironbirds.

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Justin, 33, wasn’t born when the Orioles last won the World Series. Larry, 60, would like for his son – and Justin’s own 13-year-old son — to see Baltimore celebrate another champion. But Justin is happy enough for the moment to see this often-empty section fill up like it would even 10 years ago when the Orioles were last competitive.

“To see the stadium completely packed is one of the best feelings in the world,” Justin said. “It gives you chills to see everyone yelling ‘O!’ for the national anthem.”

My personal reasons for trekking to the upper deck to talk to fans are sentimental. When I was a teenager, it was the most accessible way to watch the Orioles. When one of my friends got a driver’s license, we would come down on school nights for special sale prices we could get with our student IDs. The point wasn’t to be close to the action, or to catch the best competition. The point was to be at a baseball game, to shell some peanuts, to get a feel for the ballpark — even in the cheapest seats.

That motivation resonated with 9-year-old Ayla Caglar of Catonsville, who came with her friend Amelia Field. Amelia’s mom, Melissa Field, bought tickets Tuesday for a group of six people to catch what is increasingly becoming a citywide draw again.

Amelia liked the home runs. Ayla, a softball player, liked it all, describing the experience with eyes as big as dinner plates.

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“I get to tell my friends, ‘I went to a baseball game,’” said Caglar, whose enthusiasm wasn’t dimmed in the slightest by how high up she had been sitting. “It feels super cool.”

I asked if Melissa might take the girls again this season. Yes, Melissa said, but Ayla couldn’t help but add to the thought.

“And again,” she said. “And again and again.”