SARASOTA, Fla. — Steve Baker has been an Orioles fan all his life. But this year, his fandom got turned up to 11.

Last season, Steve and his wife Cindy Baker of Middle River came down to spring training and saw one Orioles game at Ed Smith Stadium. This year, he bought tickets to 11 games — six at home, five on the road. Last year’s quick trip to Florida expanded to two weeks in the sunshine.

Baker also expanded his season ticket package in Camden Yards to 26 games.

“I want to follow them all the way through this year,” he told me. “It’s gonna be a big deal this year.”

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The fervor for the follow-up to last year’s 101-win campaign is palpable in Florida, the springtime home of the Orioles. The stands at Ed Smith Stadium have seen more traffic, and the team store on the first floor often has a line out the door during home games. The more intimate stadium gets fans closer to the action, and autograph-seekers wait patiently in hordes by the dugouts.

Maddy and Tim Watson — making their first visit to spring training this year — escaped their Yankees- and Phillies-loving neighbors in Princeton, New Jersey, and had enjoyed seeing Orioles fans seemingly around every corner on their trip, donning orange hats and shirts. Last Wednesday, I caught them coming out of the team store with a few new hats themselves, although a peaches-and-cream-colored spring training hat that they coveted was out of stock.

“They said they sold out because they didn’t expect this many people to come to spring training,” Tim Watson said. “I’m like, ‘You got Colton Cowser, Coby Mayo, Jackson Holliday — it’s gonna be a busy spring here.’”

It has been. The Orioles have seen a somewhat modest jump in home attendance, but it’s been a jump all the same. After seeing just about 100,000 fans in 16 home games last year, Ed Smith Stadium is on pace for 111,790 this season in 17 games — and perhaps well over that, depending on a spring break surge to finish the session (the club record is 120,455, set in the 2017 season). Capacity is 8,500 when you include standing room only areas.

It’s been a welcome uptick after years in which spring training crowds were limited by COVID-19, then the labor disagreement that truncated the 2022 schedule.

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The Watsons’ experience could be more telling. Fans who are making their way down also seem to be buying lots of merchandise. Though the Orioles don’t release official figures, including merchandise sales and season ticket sales, executive vice president and chief operating officer Greg Bader told me that several of the club’s all-time top merchandise sales days have been this year.

“There’s really a wide variety of merchandise that has been flying off the shelves,” Bader said. “We think it bodes well for the regular season.”

That is a more pressing question.

The Orioles saw their overall attendance increase 41.5% in 2023, with 23,911 fans per game and about 1.93 million total fans coming through the turnstiles. That’s still well shy of the mid-2010s peak (2.46 million) and way off the mid-1990s heyday (3.71 million). Many weekday games in the 2023 season were still pretty sparse.

Without sharing ticket sales figures, Bader said the organization thinks that is changing. Based on a spike in Birdland memberships and early promotional date sales, he foresees fewer ghost town games (the Orioles had 12 games with a paid attendance of fewer than 13,000 people in 2023).

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The business they do in Sarasota is part of their calculus.

“A busy, successful spring training is somewhat of a litmus test,” he said.

Consider the vibes: Besides their AL-best record last season, the No. 1 farm system in Major League Baseball, and the acquisition of Milwaukee ace Corbin Burnes, the off-field plotlines are evolving as well. The Orioles came to terms with the state for a long-term lease, clearing the way for renovations to Camden Yards likely starting in 2025.

There’s also the ongoing sale from John Angelos to David Rubenstein. While it remains to be seen what kind of owner Rubenstein might be, the pending change has certainly inspired optimism in fans who have made their way down to Florida to get an early look.

Even from last year to this year, though the park is only averaging about 300 more fans per game, the Bakers sense more enthusiasm from the folks in Florida than last season.

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“Walking around in Sarasota today, we saw just as many Orioles shirts here as we do in Baltimore,” Cindy Baker said. “Everybody’s got them on.”

As the Orioles prepare to migrate north for the warmer months, it feels like a sign of things to come.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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