Orioles fans

Fans Ron Stahl (near) and Alan Nathan, who have been attending games together for 35 years, attend their 50th game of the year Tuesday. They look at the young pitching staff and count themselves among the optimistic for next year. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Sun Photographer / September 27, 2011)

If the Orioles were Rick Besore's girlfriend, he would have broken off the tortured relationship long ago.

Who could still love after the collapse of 2005 or the 2-16 start of 2010 or the dashing of this year's once-robust hopes? But on Monday, Besore stood with his brother Scott on the flag court at Camden Yards, shouting for his 92-loss team to spoil the playoff chances of the Boston Red Sox.

Somehow, his bond with a club that will wrap up its 14th straight losing season tonight is stronger than almost any in his life. "I just love 'em too much," he said.

Like many Orioles fans, Besore and his brother express their affection with gallows humor. "It's a tradition that at the end of the season, we wear the jerseys of guys who will excite us by not coming back," the Canton resident said.

"Like this guy!" Scott Besore said, pointing to the back of his Vladimir Guerrero shirt.

This is what it's like to care about the Orioles in 2011. The last time they finished with a winning record, there was no such thing as Google and the Ravens had barely begun their second season in Baltimore. Attendance at Camden Yards has dropped by more than half from its peak in the late 1990s. On talk radio, the Orioles are an afterthought the moment NFL training camp opens.

The worst thing about the 2011 season? This year was supposed to be different. After four years of solid franchise-building, young players were going to turn promise into wins. The new manager was going to make sure of it. And yet here we are, another last-place September, with fans torn between apathy and affection for a franchise that once thrilled them.

Manager Buck Showalter said he can't blame anyone for holding the team at an emotional arm's length.

"The fans have been too rock-solid for me to stand here and pay lip service to some kind of progress that hasn't showed up in the win column," he said before Monday's game. "We want to regain their trust, and that's not on them. That's up to us."

Players sense the love, driven into hiding by years of letdowns.

"Whenever people see you out in public, you still get a warm welcome," said catcher Matt Wieters, whose All-Star season was one of the team's few bright spots. "That's the great thing. There are still Orioles fans all over the city who are waiting to come out and embrace a winning club."

There isn't much tangible evidence that Orioles fans are becoming disillusioned. Attendance this season was about the same — 21,840 per game — as in 2010.

But there is a feeling of missed opportunity surrounding this year's team.

"I think more people were actually looking forward to this season," said Bob Haynie, who hosts an afternoon sports show on 105.7 The Fan. "So when they did bottom out, there was a lot of frustration. We've barely talked about them since the Ravens began camp. We get no calls about them."

The Orioles surged to the finish line in 2010, led by a new manager, Showalter, known for triumphant turnarounds. Their core of young players drew praise from around baseball, and they bolstered the lineup with a famous slugger in Guerrero.

Somehow, the hopes that fans nourish every spring seemed a little less far-fetched this April.

Camden Yards practically pulsed during the club's home opener, a win that pushed the Orioles to 4-0 after an improbable sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays. Fans wore "In Buck We Trust" T-shirts and showered new players with cheers as they were introduced for the first time over the loudspeaker.

It all felt so good.

Now, not only is the team's record bad, but fans are hearing strong rumors that Andy MacPhail, the would-be architect of a brighter future, is about to step down as president of baseball operations. That would mean a sixth regime change since the last winning season.

Meanwhile, prospects have dimmed for many key players. Brian Matusz, the expected leader of a revamped pitching rotation, recorded the worst ERA in major league history for a pitcher with more than 10 starts. Leadoff hitter Brian Roberts missed most of the season, and lingering concussion symptoms have left his playing future uncertain. Right fielder Nick Markakis' production has regressed from age 24 to age 27, the period when most players peak. Guerrero plummeted from 29 homers in 2010 to 13 this year.

And it's not as if the team has a bevy of top prospects about to push their way into the big leagues. A farm system that was on the rise a few years ago is now thin, with the best players probably two years or more from helping out.

"Even if you walked in and put $30 million into that team, you would not turn them into a contender," said Keith Law, an ESPN analyst and former assistant general manager of theToronto Blue Jays.

Like many around the industry, Law thought the Orioles were on the right track two years ago. And like many, he's puzzled by the lack of progress, especially among the young pitchers who were expected to be the organization's strength.

"They're underperforming compared to industry expectations, and they're getting hurt," he said. "At this point, you have to look at it as an organizational problem and not just a run of bad luck. It's sort of destroyed everything else they've tried to do."

Diehard fans have already begun to build hopes for next year around Showalter and the idea of landing free-agent power hitter Prince Fielder. But those hopes are mingled with large doses of skepticism.

"I don't think there's any real optimism that they're going to get Fielder," said Haynie, the radio host. "And barring some dramatic moves in the offseason, there's going to be more apathy toward the team than we've seen in a long, long time."

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, the focus of much fan dissatisfaction, did not respond to an interview request. But club spokesman Greg Bader said stagnant attendance wasn't surprising given the continued losing.

"I wouldn't say [the fans are] exhausted, but I would say they're a bit more disappointed," Bader said. "We were all hopeful that the progress we've made would be more apparent in the win-loss column."

Bader acknowledged that losing has hurt the team's revenue somewhat but said the Orioles are focused on selling a ballpark experience that is fun, regardless of wins and losses. In that vein, marketing for next season will focus heavily on the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards.

"We're eternally optimistic," Bader said. "We believe we are on the right path."

Showalter hasn't looked too closely at the standings in recent months, because he can't be comfortable with anything less than playoff contention. But there are still things he likes about his team. He said players' efforts have rarely flagged, a notion supported by the September torments the Orioles have inflicted on the Red Sox and Rays. He also urged patience with the club's young pitchers, arguing that he will need three years to sort out the keepers from the pretenders.

Asked if he believes he has the talent on hand to make up the core of the next good Orioles team, Showalter said, "I do."

It's the lack of depth that worries him. "I want to have enough people that we can send down [to the minors] someone who's good enough to play for us," he said. "I want to send somebody out of here real mad, because he knows he's good enough but we don't have enough spots.

"We're going to get there," Showalter said after a moment.

For the orange-clad fans who showed up to the last series of the season, that sentiment continues to be a rallying cry. Jason Myers of Cockeysville has loved the team since he was a little boy, listening to games on the radio with his grandfather.

"Nothing can take that away," he said of his memories. "I just wish people would stop hating Angelos and focus on what's important, which is coming out here and enjoying the baseball."

Myers took solace in rooting for the Orioles to knock the Red Sox out of playoff contention. Indeed, the park crackled Monday with an intensity rare for Baltimore in September. Every time Red Sox fans tried to get a cheer going, the Orioles faithful rose to shout them down. When Robert Andino cracked an inside-the-park homer to provide the winning margin, the home folks roared as if their Birds were postseason bound.

It was an all-too-brief glimpse of how things could be — and why fans like Myers come back every season. "They've been a part of me since I was born," he said. "Nothing could make me give up on them."

childs.walker@baltsun.com