Headed to the MLB playoffs, the underdog Orioles have revitalized Baltimore
Orioles fans have been waiting a long time for this.
They have a renewed team that has finally clinched a spot in the postseason for the first time in seven years.
"If you're a true fan, this is like your Christmas," Maureen Hall said.
On a crisp September evening, Hall and her friend Robin Goodwin made their way to Camden Yards dressed head-to-toe with Orioles merch: orange jerseys, large bird hats, chains and a hand-painted Orioles shield.
"Oh, this is mild," Hall said of her outfit, laughing.
The reason for the hype is a younger and talented roster, that was assembled on the cheap by management. Their incredible run to 101 wins this season has renewed enthusiasm for the team and allowed a city to dare to dream again.
What makes this team different
The Orioles had a dismal 2018 season in which they lost 115 games – the worst in the team's history. And they haven't won a World Series since 1983.
This year, a new group of younger, homegrown players have propelled the team. They clinched the postseason spot early and came first in the American League East division – beating bigger teams with deeper pockets, like the Yankees and the Red Sox.
On Saturday, the Orioles will begin a five-game series against the Texas Rangers, and they'll have home field advantage.
Jon Meoli, a columnist for The Baltimore Banner, has been following the Orioles' troubled streak since 2016. He said he knew this season would be different during the opening game in Boston.
"They had, like, the craziest game and they scored a ton of runs and they gave up a ton of runs," he said. "I just thought, whatever happens, this is going to be really, really fun; for better or worse."
And so far, it's been for the better.
Meoli said the team's success comes as a result of a top-to-bottom revamp after the 2018 season.
"They got rid of every player that most of the fans had ever heard of. They changed management and decided to go in a direction of trying to develop their own young stars and develop their own players," he said.
This is the cheaper way to rebuild a baseball team, Meoli said, because players have limited salaries in the early years of their career.
"Every plate appearance, every pitch, every swing costs a certain amount of money, and young players cost the least amount of money," he said. "So teams in the Orioles' position where they might not have the financial clout to compete with those big spending teams, like the Yankees or the Dodgers, in those massive media markets, have kind of gone towards younger players."
There are, of course, veterans like first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and outfielder Austin Hays who have been leading the team through the years and this season, but there are also catcher Adley Rutschman and shortstop Gunnar Henderson. The latter is expected to become the American League Rookie of the Year.
"They are two blossoming stars, if they're not stars already," Meoli said.
The magic of this season has also been in the pitching staff. "There's a young and talented pitching staff led by Grayson Rodriguez, a former first round pick, and Kyle Bradish, a player they acquired in a trade at the end of 2019," Meoli said.
But a young team also has a drawback: lack of experience. Even celebrating is a new thing for them, and when they clinched the playoff spot, some didn't know the right time to pop the champagne.
So, the question now on people's minds is whether the team can have a successful run in the playoffs. Fans like Hall and Goodwin are confident, but others are more cautious.
Erick Byorum started following the Orioles during their peak in the '70s and '80s. He now lives in York, Pa., about an hour north of Baltimore, but sometimes travels to the city to watch the Orioles play.
"Other than [outfielder] Aaron Hicks, we don't have many guys that have any playoff experience or World Series experience," Byorum said.
He said if it doesn't happen this year, next year is a possibility.
General Manager Mike Elias, who joined the team in 2018 after working as assistant general manager for the Houston Astros, thinks differently.
"They've had the odds stacked against them every day. So I don't think the playoffs are going to be much different from them," he said. "I think they'll be excited. There'll be some butterflies, maybe some early jitters, but I expect them to play very well."
Those odds he's talking about? The bigger teams in the division: Red Sox. Yankees. Tampa Bay Rays. But Elias wants the standard set this year to be the future.
Impact beyond the ballpark
The Orioles have been in Baltimore since the 1950s, and for many years, they were a consistently solid team and won three championships in 1966, 1970 and 1983.
"I remember the '66 World Series and the '80s when they were, you know, big, big birds and everything was exciting," said Kathy Buckner, who grew up in the city. "And then it just sort of fell apart. It was frustrating to watch because you just knew the players weren't there that they needed, and it was tough to stay a fan."
That first period of wins created a loyal fan base, though.
"You know, there's some black and orange somewhere in my blood that was still there," Buckner said.
Elias has also noticed that fan dedication. He said that when he joined the Houston Astros in 2012, "everyone was wearing Texas Ranger hats around the town," instead of the city's home team.
"That was never a problem in Baltimore," Elias said. "You got here. The team was coming off of 115 losses and there were Orioles caps everywhere. You may see a few more now, but this city was the same. So I always knew that we had that in our corner."
Peter Bolster was one of them for some time, but he stopped wearing the hat after years of disappointment.
"And it's like, all right, you know, I'm afraid that if I suddenly start wearing the hat again or start suddenly wearing a T-shirt again, I'm going to jinx it. Right now, they're winning. For years, I wore a hat and they were bad. It was like maybe I was the cause," he said, laughing.
He now hopes the team's comeback story can shed a more positive light in the city.
"Baltimore takes a bum rap in the national press. I live here for basically 30 odd years or so. Baltimore is a great place. We're raising our kid here. We've got great friends here, great work here," he said.
And now, for the first time in years, they may just have a great team again.
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