A vocal segment of the Camden Yards crowd spent the early innings cheering loudly and the middle innings filing around the stadium Thursday in a protest that nobody on the field understood. Close to 1,000 fans staged a walkout directed at the team's current ownership, missing a late comeback 4-3 win against Detroit, one of the best teams in the American League.
"They missed a good game. They should've stayed," said designated hitter Jay Gibbons, who got the day off Thursday. "I don't really have any comment, but it was hard not laughing, because that was about as loud as our fans have been all year. It would've been nice to have their support up there every game."
The rally, billed as "Free the Birds" by a local radio station, netted fans in six upper-deck sections who cheered vocally before and during the game. Most of them wore black T-shirts that said "Free the Birds" on them and carried placards that had the same slogan on one side and "For Pete's Sake" on the other.
The latter slogan referred to owner Peter Angelos, whose team is concluding its ninth straight losing season. Mike Flanagan, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, said he welcomed the protest.
"I'd say this: I thought they showed a lot of passion and a lot of exuberance today. Frankly, it reminded me of the '70s and '80s, when I was playing," said Flanagan, a former southpaw pitcher who won 167 games in the big leagues. "They seemed to be into every pitch. In some respects, I wish it would continue for nine innings.
"We're on the same page with them. I think we share that same passion and exuberance. We want to go into the offseason, and I think we're going to have some good news down the road on some issues."
The fans began filing out of the stadium at 5:08 p.m. ET, which was meant to represent two Baltimore icons: No. 5 Brooks Robinson and No. 8 Cal Ripken. As they left, they walked around the lower bowl and caused a commotion, waving signs and screaming variations of the day's theme toward the press box and the TV cameras.
The rally's organizers had hoped to draw between 3,000 and 10,000 protestors, but fell far short of those numbers. Still, in a quiet stadium, they more than made their presence known -- even if their point was obscured.
"It's pretty hard to miss," said starting pitcher Kris Benson. "I think all the players liked it. We don't mind if they come to the field every single day and do that kind of cheering for the team. Everybody enjoyed it, from the time we stepped on the field to the time that they left. Everybody was pretty excited to have some pumped up fans."
"I'm really confused," said Gibbons, summing up the day's events. "If we come back here next year and we're in first place, are those fans not coming to the game? Or are they coming? Are they our fans or not? I just know I'm a fan of a lot of things. As a sports fan, I root on my team no matter what.
"I'm at the game [and] I'm watching on TV whether they're in first place of last. I'm a Raider fan. Put it that way -- I've been there for a long time. I understand people being upset, but there's different ways of doing things. I'm confused who they're upset at -- is it us or is it the owner? I don't know."
Flanagan said the team hoped to make strides in the offseason, and hoped to regain some of the lost fan base. But he also noted that the team's fans can't choose the ownership -- not in Baltimore or anywhere else.
"I don't think people can comment on who should own a club and who shouldn't own a club. What came through loud and clear to me is that they're passionate Orioles fans and they want to win," he said. "We want to win [and] I want to win. I want to be here and have races in September that mean something and have that kind of cheering in the stands again. It's been too long.
"That's part of the reason I wanted to take on this job -- to change and get the culture back to where it was. Winning was the norm and losing was unacceptable. Hopefully, we'll head in that direction this offseason."
Contacted later by The Associated Press, Angelos said, "Whoever joins that protest has no comprehension of what it costs to run a baseball team. When you get down to facts, putting together a team that can compete in the AL East means having a payroll between $100-110 million. That money comes from the consumer, and I have chosen to keep ticket prices to a minimum.
"Our payroll is $75 million, and our ticket prices average $22. Some of the teams we compete against charge an average of $45. We're going to have to match the competition. How to do that is a decision I will make in the future."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.