In the last month at WNST and in the sports world, most of the talk has been surrounded by the ongoing labor situation in the NFL(recently flaring up in a lockout by the owners threatening the 2011 season), disappointment from Terps basketball as yet another year with no NCAA Tournament aspirations, and various other sports topics of discussion-most of them negative.
But, I was surprised at the start of baseball season to see so much optimism toward the hometown Baltimore Orioles-mind you a team that has not had a winning season since 1997.
And of course, you can trace that optimism back to last summer, when veteran manger Buck Showalter-who built three franchises to the level of World Series participants-took over as manager of the Baltimore Orioles on August 3rd and led the Orioles to a 34-23 record-best in the AL East for the last stretch of the season.
Showalter’s arrival showed the impact of what a veteran manager (guys not named Dave Trembley or Juan Samuel) who knows the game of baseball along with evaluating key personnel can put wins on the board.
But frankly, it could also be said that Showalter was blessed with the healthiest Oriole team of last year, having both his leadoff hitter in Brian Roberts and his reliever in Koji Uehara healthy for the final run of the season.
Still, what Showalter did last year energized the displaced and beaten Oriole fanbase.
And I was one of them.
Last season, I went to one game before Showalter took over as manager of the Orioles-this coming from a former regular to OPACY.
I always enjoy going to Orioles games growing up. Baseball is my first love. My dad and I have been going to games since I was eight years old (I’m 23 now).I have so many fond memories of going to Oriole Park as a growing lad.
I remember when I was younger sitting in the club seats on the first base side when my dad got them from the car dealership he used to work for.
I still have my Orioles cards I received one night at the ballpark featuring the likes of Chris Hoiles, Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Brady Anderson and more.
I loved emulating Cal Ripken’s hundreds of batting stances and Mike Mussina’s trademark way of checking the runner at first base by bending down and looking through his legs.
One of the first games I ever went to at Camden Yards, I puked due to eating so much of the food there. (Not one of my finest moments but I can safely say I’ve never hoarded out since).
In 1997, my dad and I went to Game 1 of the ALCS verus the Cleveland Indians. The Orioles won that night with Scott Erickson on the mound, and we sat in a filled-to-the-brink Camden Yards in the back row of the left field bleachers.
I remember being in the fifth grade (my teacher also went to the game that night) and looking back behind me and just seeing a chain-link fence and a huge drop behind me. I was terrified. And even I wasn’t worrying about that, I couldn’t see much of the field or the players even with the binoculars I brought.
It was kind of a bummer for a ten-year old kid.
My dad was “well-off” at the time, but his reasoning for the nose-bleed seats were to save for the eventual World Series tickets.
Unfortunately…that never came.
And after 14 years of losing, the Orioles continued to test both my and my dad’s patience so much so that our journeys to Camden Yards dwindled and dwindled till we stopped going completely.
There’s only so much of an emotional roller-coaster ride you can take. Right O’s fans?
I would still watch the games on television religiously for 80% of the year until the usual August slide occurred post All-Star break, and then it was on to football.
It was part of the routine for the last decade-plus.
But things are different now. For the first time in years, the Orioles FINISHED well and on top of that, we might not have football to rely on this year Baltimore.
After Showalter put a spark into the team, that renewed sense of optimism put my dad and I back in the ballpark on several occasions. It was the first time in almost a decade that my dad had been at the park and for me, I could count on one hand how many times I had gone solo or with a group of friends to an Orioles game that wasn’t student night or giving something away.
The Orioles management in the off-season tried their best to keep that salivation going on the part of the Baltimore fanbase by getting some new toys for practically nothing, and with little risk involved.
They traded away David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio-two pitchers who had the chance to be non-tendered by the club anyway-for a 30 home run third basemen in Mark Reynolds who had an off-year due to injuries in 2010.
The same could be said for former Cubs/Marlins/Braves first baseman Derrek Lee-once on track for Triple Crown numbers several years back with Chicago, and an offensive upgrade at shortstop with J.J. Hardy forcing Cesar Izturis to the bench.
And the club reached out to the competition and stole the closer of the Toronto Blue Jays from last season in Kevin Gregg to hopefully do the same for the Orange and Black.
But ultimately, the icing on the cake came when the Orioles finally reached out to former AL-MVP Vladimir Guerrero and signed him to a one-year deal.
Guerrero-who was sought by the Orioles years ago when he first hit free agency in 2004-was a huge part in the Texas Rangers reaching the World Series last year, and even if he has an off-year, I’ll take a drop-off from 29 HR, 115 RBIs and a .300 batting average any day of the week.
People say he’s injury prone, but he did play in 152 games last year as a DH.
I’m right along with Buck Showalter right now in wanting to just get this thing started.
I’m the kid at Christmas waiting for his parents to come downstairs so we can get started opening them.
The enthusiasm has to be there. How can you be disappointed in what the Orioles did in the off-season?
They went out and addressed needs-and with short-term solutions-maybe even guys who turn their careers around and become a piece of the U-turn in Baltimore.
You have to crawl before you can walk. You have to show the superstars out there-guys like Prince Fielder-that this team is going somewhere before they are going to make a commitment.
And if they don’t work out? They won’t be here. This isn’t Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, and Javy Lopez where they’re stuck with these guys for several seasons paying them for mediocrity while holding someone else back.
And while all the talk about earning a wild card spot, reaching the playoffs, and even getting to .500 this year is all good and nice, sorry Baltimore-this is where I have to lay it down like it is.
Even with the moves they made from a year ago, it’s going to be near-impossible to improve by 20+ wins in the standings. They still have relatively the same pitching staff from a year ago, some injury concerns, and a similar bullpen in many aspects.
So hold off on the-“We’re gunning for you Boston and Baltimore”-especially you…Buck Showalter.
But I will say this. I don’t care how they finish right now. And if even if the consecutive losing streak continues this year, it’s not going to be because they started out with just two wins on the year in the first three weeks.
They’ll be exciting to watch and competitive.
We’ll be in April soon. Everyone will have a clean slate and on Opening Day, everyone will be on the same level, identical records and have common ground is in place.
The best thing in the world of Orioles baseball would be for this team to get off to the tremendous start the team got off to in 2005-going 42-30 under Lee Mazzilli while enjoying first place-but this time staying there with another former Yankee leading the way.
And I’d be there to watch it.Now let’s get started.
WNST is ready for the Orioles 2011 season! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!