Playoff fever grips Baltimore-Washington region -- Gazette.Net


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At his sports card and memorabilia shop in the Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac, Peter Averinos has seen more shoppers in recent weeks hunting down a hot commodity: Washington Nationals gear.

The most requested item these days at Hall of Fame Cards & Collectibles?

“Bryce Harper fatheads,” Averinos said, referring to the life-sized, high-definition image of the Nationals’ rookie centerfielder that can be attached to walls. Nationally, Harper merchandise also is doing well, his jersey is the fourth most popular one since the All-Star Game, according to Major League Baseball.

Stores that sell Baltimore Orioles merchandise and Baltimore-area restaurants have reported similar sales boosts.

“Since the All-Star break [in July], our business has increased at least 50 percent,” said Pat Liberto, owner of Camden Pub on West Pratt Street near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “People got on the train a little more each week. August and September were probably the best two months we have seen in 22 years in business.”

The sales jump is fueled by the teams’ much-improved seasons this year that have surprised many experts. For the first time, MLB’s Washington and Baltimore teams are in the playoffs the same year.

The Washington region has not witnessed a playoff game since 1933, while the Orioles, who moved to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954, have not reached the postseason since 1997.

The O’s were considered to be a longer shot to make the playoffs this year than the Nationals. Before the season began, no one on a panel of 50 ESPN baseball experts picked Baltimore to reach the postseason. Fourteen of the 50 ESPN prognosticators thought Washington would make the playoffs, with two even predicting the team will make the World Series before losing to the American League champion.

“Given the records of the teams — Washington since 1945 and Baltimore since 1997 — 2012 is a real sea change,” said Philip R. Hochberg, referring to the last years the teams had stellar records. Hochberg was a longtime public address announcer for the old Washington Senators, along with the Orioles and other teams.

“I've been waiting for a Washington team to play postseason baseball since 1949, when, at 8, I first started following them,” said Hochberg, a lawyer with Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker of Potomac who represents the NFL and other sports leagues, conferences and teams.

Game attendance up 21 percent

Fan attendance at games in Baltimore and Washington this season both rose by 21 percent from last season, according to league statistics. The Nationals averaged a little more than 30,000 fans per game, up from almost 25,000 in 2011 and the most since the team’s first year in Washington in 2005.

The Orioles averaged almost 27,000 fans per game this season, up from about 22,000 and the most since 2007. The increase helped boost sales at many restaurants, retailers and other businesses in downtown Baltimore near Camden Yards.

At the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum on Emory Street and the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards on Camden Street, admission sales rose in August by 23 percent from a year earlier, said Michael L. Gibbons, executive director of those institutions. They were up by even more in September, he said.

“One thing that hurt us was that in July, baseball gave the Orioles a terrible schedule with very few home games,” Gibbons said. “That was a month when a lot of families were off on vacation. But we had good months in August and September. ... Hotels, restaurants and retailers around us are seeing sales spikes, too.”

The Sports Legends museum, which features items from the Orioles, Baltimore Ravens, University of Maryland and other teams, is more of a local draw, while the Babe Ruth facility attracts more national visitors, Gibbons said. He was hoping for an Orioles win on Friday in the wild card playoff game against the Texas Rangers.

If the Orioles beat the Rangers, they will host the first two games of an American League Division Series on Sunday and Monday against the New York Yankees, despite the Yankees holding the top seed. That’s because MLB owners approved a change by the league to move the Division Series from a 2-2-1 format in which the higher-seed team opened at home to a 2-3 format to help accommodate an extra wild card team, with the lower-seed team getting to play the first two games at home.

“Playoff games here will really boost the traffic in this area,” Gibbons said. Many Yankee fans will be drawn to the museum featuring the longtime Yankee star, he added.

“It will be huge,” said Liberto, if Baltimore hosts the Yankees in the playoffs. “This place will explode.”

The Orioles unveiled an attraction this season to honor the six former players and managers who club officials said were the all-time greatest. The larger-than-life bronze statues and special ceremonies commemorate the 20th anniversary season at Camden Yards. The games honoring Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson were among the team’s eight sellouts this season. Two others recognizing Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray attracted near sellouts of more than 40,000 fans.

The series, which included distributing replica statues to those in attendance, was among the most popular promotions the club has staged in recent years, said Louis Angelos, son of Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos. It was fitting the series ended Saturday by dedicating the statue of Robinson, a Hall of Fame third baseman who won 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, he said.

“When you think of the Orioles, you think about Brooks Robinson," Angelos said.

Robinson is sold on the present version of the Orioles.

“You can really say this is a team effort,” Robinson said to a crowd that included Palmer, Ripken, Murray, Earl Weaver and Frank Robinson. “They’ve been sensational.”

The Nationals, with the top seed in the National League, are on the other side of this situation. Washington is forced to travel to either Atlanta or St. Louis for the first two games Sunday and Monday and won’t host the first home playoff game in Washington since 1933 until Wednesday.

The league will be returning to the 2-2-1 format it had since 1998 for the Division Series next season, said John Blundell, a MLB spokesman.

kshay@gazette.net