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Feature

Next Year is Here

Looking back, forward, and sideways at the O’s chances

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Photo: Charlie Vascellaro, License: N/A

Charlie Vascellaro

This year’s crowd at Ed Smith Stadium

Photo: Charlie Vascellaro, License: N/A

Charlie Vascellaro

The “Chandelier of Champions” at Ed Smith Stadium

Photo: Billy Birrane, License: N/A

Billy Birrane

Rally Cap Pile at Phelan’s

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele


So where were we?

Well, the Orioles had just dropped the fifth and deciding game of the 2012 American League Division Series to the hated New York Yankees. And thus we were despondent to be so rudely awakened from our dream season.

It wasn’t so much that the Orioles had lost. It was more that the wonderful season-long ride had come to an end. I was watching the fateful, final game at Phelan’s Pub, a speakeasy basement bar in my buddy Billy Birrane’s Canton rowhouse (not open to the public).

The cozy dropped-ceilinged man cave was warm and glowing, with most of the low light provided by vintage neon beer signs. Billy kept a great rotation of beers on tap throughout the final week or two of the regular season and the bar was well-stocked for the playoffs, piled high with pizza, chicken wings, chips, dips, salsa, and nuts. We took turns tending bar during the entire playoff run, filling pitchers of beer and ringing the bell whenever the Orioles scored a run. Desperate for a couple of runs in the final innings of the last game, we sat in lucky chairs and created a rally-cap pile on the floor next to two carved Orioles pumpkins, some bobblehead dolls, and Buckle Up towels. While holding hands in a circle, we droned the letter O as in “Ohhhhhhh. . . ” just like we did the night before.

It didn’t quite pan out. The Orioles fell just short of advancing to the American League Championship Series and a shot at the World Series, but they captured the hearts and minds of a rejuvenated fan base.

A short while after the last out was recorded, we gathered up our collective bruised psyche and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go out and greet the Orioles when they returned to Camden Yards that night. There were about 400 people waiting when the team’s buses pulled into the parking lot at around 1 A.M. I remember looking at the ballpark’s facade while we were waiting and thinking that it would be six months until Opening Day. The words “wait till next year” haven’t rung with more resonance for Orioles fans in a generation.

The 2012 baseball season in Baltimore was truly one for the books. In manager Buck Showalter’s second full year on the job, a spirited Orioles squad reversed a 69-93 record from the previous year to 93-69, posting both the franchise’s first winning season and first postseason appearance in 15 years. The Orioles spent most of the season in either first or second place and fought tooth and nail with the Yankees down the stretch, exchanging blows like a pair of heavyweights through the month of September before finishing two games back.

Second place in the tough AL East was still good enough to qualify for a wild-card, play-in game against the defending American League-champion Texas Rangers. Late-season acquisition, veteran southpaw pitcher “Bazooka Joe” Saunders outlasted Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish and the Orioles advanced to what felt like an inevitable playoff clash with the Yankees. Despite finishing behind New York in the division standings, it still felt like the Orioles had the momentum going into the playoff series.

Of course, there were concerns; there’s always concern when you’re facing the Yankees. Game One starter C.C. Sabathia had been tough on the Orioles. It was one of Sabathia’s heavy-sinking fastballs that broke Nick Markakis’ left thumb on Sept. 8, knocking him out of the lineup for the remainder of the season. Feisty Nate McLouth filled in admirably for Markakis in the outfield and in the lead-off spot, but there was still something missing from the Orioles attack without Markakis, who had been hitting at a .335 clip during the second half of the season since returning from a broken bone in his right wrist that had him sidelined for six weeks. I remember hearing the hard clap of the ball-on-bone sound all the way from the front row of the roof-deck bar seats in dead center field that night and feeling slightly doomed.

But the Orioles kept on keeping on, going 15-8 for the remainder of the season, and were re-energized by knocking off the Rangers to advance to the American League Division Series. The veteran Yankees seemed battle-weary from the lengthy pennant race, while the Orioles were still running on young legs. Orioles fans couldn’t wait for the first postseason series in 15 years to get underway in Baltimore.

Here’s a brief recap of the American League Division Series with the Yankees: Game One was tied 2-2 going into the ninth inning before the usually very reliable Orioles closer Jim Johnson gave up a lead-off home run to Yankees catcher Russell Martin, and a five-run implosion ensued.

Behind six solid innings from starter Wie-Yin Chen and a pair of singles from right fielder Chris Davis, who drove in the first two runs in the bottom of the third inning, and (now-former) first baseman Mark Reynolds, who pushed across the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the sixth, the Orioles edged the Yankees 3-2 and sent the series back to New York tied.

The atmosphere throughout the closely played game was electric and the post-game celebration was like nothing many of us in attendance had ever felt before in Baltimore. October baseball smelled different, the smoke from the grills rose and gathered in our noses, merging with the beer on close friends’ breath, and the flask of bourbon somebody snuck in to take a bit of the chill off always tasted better when accompanied by victory. The tightly packed denizens rubbed elbows, exchanged high-fives, and slapped each others’ backs all the way down the ramps from the upper deck and on the main concourse, sloshing through puddles of spilt beer, singing and dancing their way out of the ballpark and piling out onto the street, where an all-night party ensued in front of Pickles and Sliders. The cumulative collection of a whole season’s worth of sights, smells, and sounds converged on the corner that night. There was a constant buzzing drone as if you could hear the electricity surging through the power lines above. The tension of the pennant race and anxiety over the close ones that got away were lost in the euphoria. The lengthy celebration provided the most heightened moments of elation during the entire season. It was the Orioles’ first playoff victory at home since Game One of the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians in 1997. No matter what happened next, the Orioles had beaten the Yankees in what would prove to be the last home game of the season.

But in Game Three, Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez’s stellar seven-inning, eight-strikeout, one-run performance was lost in the general horror of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (Gonzalez’s 9-4, 3.25 ERA in 15 starts performance was instrumental in the Orioles’ pennant-race push). The Orioles were two outs away from grabbing a 2-1 series lead but again couldn’t close the door on the Bombers in the ninth inning. Yankees pinch hitter Raul Ibanez blasted a moon-shot into the night that rocked the stadium to its foundation and hit yet another in the bottom of the 12th to seal the Orioles’ doom. Needless to say, the walk to the subway in full Orioles garb after the game was perhaps the longest and slowest cattle-car procession that I’ve endured.

What could have possibly been a three-game sweep or at least a two-games-to-one edge for Baltimore was now a 2-1 deficit, with the remaining two games to be played in New York. The Orioles turned to the suddenly rock-solid veteran Saunders, who kept the Yankees’ bats at bay for five and two-thirds innings before turning the game over to the bullpen, and the Orioles evened the series with yet another signature extra-inning victory, earning the right to face Sabathia one more time in the series finale. Midnight finally fell on the Orioles Cinderella season in a hard-fought 3-1 loss in Game Five, which brings us back to parking lot at Camden Yards and “Wait till next year.”

This year, the team and its fans have their sights set even further. The only question is: Can the Orioles do it again?

This is almost uncharted territory for Orioles fans, who have not wanted anything resembling a repeat performance of the previous season for quite some time.

Prior to the recent resurgence engineered by manager Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette (some credit should also go to former GM Andy MacPhail, who also helped assemble the team’s current roster), a culture of mediocrity, apathy, and complacency that had permeated the team for the past decade-and-half seemed to have reversed itself during the course of the 2012 season. A rejuvenated fan base increased from 1.7 million in 2011 to 2.1 million in 2012, moving the team up from 11th in the American League to 7th out of 14 teams in terms of support.

A record 18,000 fans stormed the Baltimore Convention Center for the Orioles FanFest in January. The Orioles’ own “Earl of Baltimore” died at sea on a cruise ship on the eve of the fest, turning the event into a huge memorial ceremony. (The Orioles will wear a patch with Weaver’s No. 4 on their sleeves this season.)

The team continued to set spring-training attendance records in its fourth season at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., and season ticket sales are up.

The Orioles appeared focused but loose throughout spring training. Even though none of the stars or starters were in the game for the Yankees, it still felt good to beat their uniforms on the third day of the Grapefruit League season on Feb. 25. I remember pointing to that date on the spring training schedule when I picked one up at the FanFest, reminding people that it would be the first time the Orioles and Yankees would meet since the playoffs. Looking to earn back his starting spot at second base for the first time in three years, Brian Roberts banged two doubles off the outfield wall and Nick Markakis ripped a pair of singles against the team that ended his season last year. Re-signed free-agent outfielder Nate McLouth also powered one into the gap, and Orioles pitchers kept the Yankees B-squad at bay. In a dreamlike sequence that can only take place during spring training in Florida, the Orioles completed a day/night doubleheader sweep of the Yankees and Red Sox in Tampa and Sarasota two days later.

There hasn’t been such a highly anticipated season of such heightened expectations in these parts in a long time. And coming on the heels of the Ravens’ Super Bowl win, the city has gotten a taste of victory and is chomping at the bit for baseball season to begin.

But all of the expectations bring increasing scrutiny as well, and there’s still an air of skepticism and trepidation among the Orioles faithful going into the 2013 season. There’s an ebb and flow to every 162-game baseball season and from season to season. The Orioles took an initial step forward upon Showalter’s arrival—posting a 34-23 record (.596) in his first two months, toward the conclusion of the 2010 season—only to fall back and finish dead-last in 2011, before last year’s giant leap forward.

So what was the magic formula behind the Orioles’ dramatic reversal of fortune?

The serious, workman-like influence of Showalter and his magnificent handling of a very fluid Orioles roster and pitching rotation was a major factor. The Orioles fielded more players (52) than any other team in the major leagues last year and made 178 roster moves from Opening Day through the end of the season. As evidenced by the prevalence of Showalter T-shirts, “Buckle Up” bumper stickers, and rally towels, in his two-and-a-half years at the helm, Buck has become the most popular Orioles skipper since Earl Weaver. (There’s also something similar about their styles, and if you believe in things like the baseball gods, you have to think Weaver’s spirit will be present this year. The Orioles painted his No. 4 on the grass at Ed Smith Stadium for home exhibition games during Grapefruit League season. (The Orioles are also scheduled to host “A Celebration of Earl,” on Saturday, April 20 at 2 P.M. prior to the evening’s game with the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

General manager Dan Duquette also deserves credit for exercising restraint in resisting the temptation to trade the team’s top minor-league prospects for established major leaguers, allowing them time to develop within the organization. Infielder Manny Machado, the Orioles’ first-round draft pick of 2010, made his big-league debut on Aug. 9 and continued to have an immediate impact, hitting his first two home runs the next day in a 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Oriole Park. Machado hit a respectable .262 with seven home runs and 26 RBI in 51 games while making numerous highlight-reel plays at third base. Machado’s arrival solidified the Orioles’ infield and brought a contagious spark. Orioles fans can’t wait to see what Machado can do in a full season, and expectations are running high for the 20-year-old, who is already projected to be a perennial all-star.

With the exception of Machado and a few new faces that arrived late in the season, the Orioles were just about the same team in 2012 that they were in 2011.

Designated hitter/outfielder Chris Davis was acquired by the Orioles with pitcher Tommy Hunter, in exchange for Koji Uehara, in July of 2011. Davis would prove to be instrumental in the team’s turnaround and exemplary of the Orioles’ style of play. In what would come to be seen as a season-defining, highlight-clip moment at Fenway Park on May 6, Davis was called on to pitch in the bottom of the 17th inning to preserve the lead after outfielder Adam Jones’ three-run homer put the Orioles ahead 9-6. Davis faced eight batters, giving up two hits with one walk and two strikeouts, and was credited with the win. It was the kind of game that made the team start to believe in itself, and the kind of game the Orioles would continue to win for the remainder of the season, notching 14 consecutive extra-inning victories and setting a major-league record 29-9 record in one-run games. These almost-aberrational statistics have critics of the team predicting a downturn for the Orioles this year. Davis, who led the team with 33 home runs and 85 RBI last season, also finds himself on the hot seat this year, inheriting the starting job at first base after the Orioles decided to part ways with free-swinging slugger Mark Reynolds. At the Orioles’ FanFest in January, Davis, who is still just 27, said he was looking forward to the opportunity and insisted he is up to the challenge, reminding fans that first base is his natural position.

Orioles fans here at home and the national media pundits have criticized the team’s lack of off-season activity, but the team that will take the field this year is a work-in-progress.

There’s also an old baseball adage that goes, “The best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make.” Does anyone think the Orioles would have been better last year if the team dealt Manny Machado for a more experienced veteran position player or pitcher? Or, more significantly, how would the team look for years to come?

The general manager is building the team for the long haul. There were definitely offers made for the team’s top pitching prospects, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, but the Orioles have opted to retain them and the view from here is that the team made the smarter bet. And so the Orioles are going to dance with the ones that brought ’em to the first postseason in 15 years.

Duquette is sticking with his guns, insisting that the team that won 93 games last year is still developing and capable of improving on last year’s performance.

“We’re really returning the core of our team from last year, which was really a very, very competitive team,” said Duquette at the outset of spring training.

“We have a much more established pitching staff this year. They had the experience of going to the playoffs and they feel they have unfinished business.”

The pitching staff is perhaps where Duquette did his best tinkering last year. Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen was possibly the team’s most significant off-season acquisition, leading all Orioles starting pitchers, with 32 starts, 12 wins, and 192 innings pitched; in his first major-league season, Chen finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.

Right-hander Jason Hammel was acquired just prior to the start of spring training last year for pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. Hammel got off to a great start, winning eight of his first 10 decisions before being sidelined with an elbow injury, but returned and finished strong, winning two big pennant-race games against the Yankees and Tampa in September.

As of this writing, the five spots in the Orioles’ starting rotation appear to be occupied by Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA in 20 starts last year), Chen (12-11, 4.02 ERA, 192 innings-pitched), Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25 in 15 starts), and last year’s Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta (3-9, 6.20 ERA)—who will start the Orioles home opener on Friday, April 5—and 24-year-old righty Chris Tillman (9-3, 2.93 ERA in 15 starts).

“We didn’t go out and get anybody new, maybe a couple of new faces here and there, but we kept everything intact and that’s kudos to our depth,” Hammel said.

Both Duquette and Showalter were rewarded during the off-season with contract extensions running through 2018, and while the team may not have made any flashy acquisitions, the Orioles organization did make major commitments to keeping the current team intact. All-Star, Gold Glove center fielder, and team MVP Adam Jones signed a six-year $85.5 million contract extension—the largest paid in franchise history—and expressed delight in hearing about Showalter and Duquette reupping with the club.

“I’m excited to hear about Buck and Dan’s contract extensions,” Jones said in a statement. “Knowing Buck will be our manager for many years to come makes me even more glad that I signed my contract last year. We made progress in 2012, but our goal is always the World Series and this announcement is only going to help us be better in the future.”

There also seems to be a very agreeable chemistry to the current crop of Orioles, many of whom have now developed together in the team’s minor-league system, including a flock of left- and-right-handed wings that put the Orioles in the enviable position of having to assemble a starting five from a large pool of qualified candidates while allowing youngsters like Bundy and Gausman more time for seasoning.

It took a while for baseball fans in Baltimore to give their hearts back to the team. Would another step back alienate the fans who climbed back on board last year?

It will be a telling season for the Orioles and the team’s fans. Last year, the Orioles were able to bring baseball back to the forefront of a football-crazed city. The Ravens and Orioles also seemed to share a very symbiotic relationship. Some of the biggest ovations heard at M&T Bank Stadium last football season were for members of the Orioles when cameras found them in attendance and projected their images onto the big scoreboard video screen.

Last year, I converted my friend Ben Franklin, a purple-haired football fanatic/bartender at the Mount Royal Tavern, into a rabid Orioles fan.

In the beginning, Ben enjoyed going to the games mostly for the girls, snacks, and booze. We made it to about half-a-dozen games down the stretch, and when it became apparent that the Orioles were going to be in the pennant race for the long haul, Ben’s focus turned to the game on the field. He even started going to games on his own, which came as a surprise to some of the regulars at the tavern. They’d ask me, “What have you done to Ben?”

We were guests in a suite on the club level for Game Two of the ALDS against the Yankees, the last game at Oriole Park last year. Ben was excited to bump into Ravens running back Ray Rice at one of the bars.

“We have to come back and get a suite again next year,” he said. And on a blustery winter afternoon in January, we took a tour of the ballpark and partnered on a mini-season ticket plan and, yes, we reserved a suite for a single game.

I received this text from Ben last week: “Tickets came today. Now I’m getting psyched.”

Psyched. Ben is a perfect representation of the Ravens/Orioles crossover demographic that came to embrace baseball and the Orioles last year during the team’s turnaround season, and an important part of an extended fan base the Orioles hope to retain. And like the old-timers, he’s psyched.

So, as the Orioles open the season on the road in Tampa Bay Tuesday, April 2, and have their home opener on Friday against the Minnesota Twins, the city has some reason to hope that last year’s Orioles magic might align with football’s Team of Destiny.

They’ve been keeping a lamp lit at Phelan’s Pub all winter long, waiting for next year. Well, next year is here.

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