The club level at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium on Thursday night was packed with a few hundred baseball fans in various levels of dress, some in suits and others in Baltimore Orioles jerseys and hats.
Seated around dinner tables littered with the remnants of a catered dinner they'd eaten earlier, at 8 p.m. all attendees, regardless of their clothing, turned their attention to a stage at the center of the room to hear two of the Orioles' biggest names talk about the upcoming season.
Dressed crisply but casually, sitting in director's chairs and armed with microphones were the men of the evening, Baltimore Manager Buck Showalter and closing pitcher Jim Johnson.
Looking around the club level, Showalter, who led the Orioles to their first playoff appearance since 1997 last season, and who signed a five-year contract extension with the Baltimore club on Wednesday, remembered his first managing position with the Oneonta Yankees.
"Now, I managed in the New York-Penn League," Showalter said. "It was a while ago, but I don't remember anything in the league looking as nice as this. This is really a great facility."
Johnson, who led the major leagues in saves during 2012 with 51, an Orioles' club record, said he'd never had the opportunity to play with the IronBirds during his nine seasons in the Baltimore farm system.
"I missed out on playing in Aberdeen," he said. "There isn't anything in the Gulf Coast League like this place."
"I think Jimmy made every stop on the way up but this one," Showalter said. "He skipped right over."
The pair were equal parts serious and comical as they fielded questions sent in by fans, which were read by emcee Steve Melewski of MASNsports. When asked about what the term, "the Ripken way" meant to him, Showalter, who played against a then teenage Cal Ripken Jr. in the AA-Level Southern League in 1979, said the explanation was an easy one.
"It isn't some great departure, or inventing something new," Showalter said. "It's just making sure you do the little things right, like being able to get a bunt down when you have to, or where to be during a run-down."
The question-and-answer session went on for the better part of an hour, and most of the queries given to Showalter and Johnson concerned how they think Orioles will fare in 2013, one season after defying the pundits who said Baltimore would finish last.
"My number-one job is to make sure the Baltimore Orioles are ready come opening day," Showalter said. "You can only control what's going on with your own team, and make sure that it's in shape to win games. This team is such an easy group to play with. Whatever it is that makes a team play well together, they've got it."
"We were supposed to be terrible last year, right?" Johnson said. "We hear it, and it doesn't matter. We're only interested in continuing last year's success."
Toward the end of the program, Showalter spoke of his players and local fans being rewarded for their perseverance through the Orioles' lean years.
"It was so great to our guys to get some return on all their hard work last season," Showalter said. "And, it was just as satisfying seeing all the fans get some return on their loyalty to the club. It was great seeing Yankees fans not be able to buy tickets to our home games. Things like that are good for the city."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun