The Baltimore Orioles are back in town for their home opener on Friday, and this is the moment when newspaper editorialists generally wax poetic about baseball in spring, fathers and sons, the uncertain state of the national pastime and hope springing eternal. There's usually a bit about how baseball is like life, how you have brief moments of action but mostly it's about planning and anticipation and how even the greatest ballplayers and teams do not succeed much of the time.
Oh, we could go on. References to baseball movies like "Field of Dreams" or "The Natural" are big, too. And there's usually a few jokes about how baseball relates to the politics of the day or maybe a famous quote or two. Like how Harry Truman once presciently warned the owner of the Washington Senators to look out for Richard Nixon's curve. And these days, there's usually an obligatory nod to fantasy leagues and sabermetrics.
But we're going to mercifully dispense with the baseball pseudo-philosophy (or leave it to George Will, its leading purveyor) to raise a more pressing opening day question: Has Baltimore fallen back in love with the Orioles?
Last fall was a thrill ride, a joyous return of meaningful Major League Baseball in September followed by actual games in October. Nobody saw it coming until it did. The Orioles just kept winning close games, playing like men possessed. Oriole Park at Camden Yards became the hottest ticket in town, and we had great fun seeing the team win some big-time nail-biters.
Perhaps it's impossible to maintain that level of fan excitement, particularly at the start of baseball's endurance-taxing 162-game schedule, or maybe we are still catching our collective breath from the Ravens Super Bowl win (or distracted by so much off-season turnover in the Ravens roster), but the fan base seems in a pretty ho-hum mood to us.
That's not to suggest it's not a distinct improvement from a year ago. The team reports that sales of both tickets and Orioles-related gear are up this season after last season's record increase. But team officials have been cautious in their assessment. After opening day has come and gone, average attendance for home games is unlikely to hit the kind of numbers (30,000 or more per game) of a decade ago.
Could it be a matter of low expectations? The Orioles may have been the biggest surprise of last season, but it appears that sportswriters are ready to be surprised again. Few predict a return to the playoffs, even fewer that the team will win the American League East. Could it be that Orioles fans have been reading those clippings?
Forty miles to the South, the D.C. fan base is contemplating a World Series appearance, but Orioles fans seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Maybe that's prudent. Maybe that's the nature of a more cerebral sport than the one played with a helmet and pads. Or because the Orioles aren't blessed with a high-profile young phenom duo like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and their fans not as starved for a championship as Washingtonians.
Still, we can't help but get the feeling that Baltimore and the Orioles had some really good dates together but just aren't certain whether to make a commitment quite yet. Oh, we care. Absolutely. Love the Orioles. But treat them like the champion Ravens, fly those flags, wear those jerseys, buy those tickets, scream at the television, track player batting averages and earned run averages obsessively and really take the plunge?
Let's talk in June or July. You doing anything around the All-Star break?
This is, of course, what so many years of cellar-dwelling in the American League East has wrought. The Orioles still fly under the radar even in Birdland. That the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays says they'll be in the hunt this fall doesn't change much. (He couldn't just dismiss the team the Rays finished three games behind last season — and just lost to in their own home opener — as that would make him look pretty inept).
We don't know what kind of team the Orioles will be this year. Last year might have been a fluke or it might have been a rebirth. But finding out is bound to be fun for the fans willing to embrace a pretty lovable bunch of ballplayers. Or, as Roy Hobbs once told Ray Kinsella at a Durham Bulls game while contemplating the existential meaning of the infield fly rule, let's play two but leave Dick Nixon back in that Iowa corn.