Pat Prada was fed up, mad enough to protest the only way he could — with his wallet.
The lifelong Orioles fan opted against renewing his season-ticket plan in early February, convinced he should no longer patronize a club that wouldn't spend enough money to build a contender.
Prada, 48, explained his decision with a sheepish grin Wednesday as he sat among fellow orange-and-black-clad faithful for a preseason rally at Dempsey's Brew Pub & Restaurant at Camden Yards. Just a few weeks after he spurned the Orioles, they spent $58 million for free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, winning his heart right back.
"Now I really regret giving up those tickets," the Laurel resident said.
With the Orioles set to open their season Monday afternoon at Camden Yards and celebrate the team's 60th anniversary in Baltimore, many fans are in the same mood as Prada — fired up about their club after a winter largely defined by frustration.
Rarely has the city's attitude about a team flipped so quickly. In early February, many worried that the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos were content to drift back into mediocrity after two seasons of winning. By the end of that month, fans were convinced they had a worthy contender to cheer. A few big moves did the trick, even prompting a late surge in season-ticket sales.
"It didn't seem that the organization was investing in the team, the players or the city," said Sean Collins, a season-ticket holder who grew up in Towson. "It was very frustrating. I felt that ownership was fine with not competing. But now, it feels like we're all-in. I think the window is definitely now, and they seem to realize it."
Fans have developed deep attachments to the stars of the current team, such as Adam Jones and Chris Davis, who set a single-season franchise record for home runs in 2013. And with some of their top players nearing free agency, die-hards want the Orioles to take their best shot this season and next.
That urgency is felt by team officials and players, as well.
"It looks to me like a one-year window: 2014," said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. "That's what we're gearing up for. We've been able to address some of the needs on our team, and the club does want to be competitive. Mr. Angelos made a commitment to the community and [manager] Buck [Showalter] wants to see the mission through. ... Everybody's trying to accomplish the same thing."
Players reacted just as powerfully as fans to the free-agent signings, even crowding into the introductory news conference for the power-hitting Cruz to demonstrate their enthusiasm.
"I can't say enough about the guys they brought in," said pitcher Chris Tillman, who led the Orioles in wins last season. "We are more than excited to get this underway."
Despite chilly conditions, fans packed into Dempsey's on Wednesday to share their excitement about the approaching season.
Opening Day tickets are sold out, even though their face value is at least 5 percent higher than last season. On the secondary market, the cheapest seats are selling for more than $100 and the most expensive for more than $1,000, with an average of about $222 according to Tiqiq.com. It doesn't hurt that the reigning World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox, are the opponents.
Greg Bader, the club's vice president of communications and marketing, said the signings of the power-hitting Cruz and right-handed pitcher Jimenez also prompted a rare late-February bump to season-ticket sales. "I think it was definitely a jolt in a positive way," he said. "I think [the signings] were the commitment fans had been waiting to see."
The Orioles finished 2013 on an uncertain note. Though fans would have killed for an 85-77 record just a few years earlier, the club's early-September fall from the playoff race came as a mild disappointment after the unexpected magic of 2012, when the team made the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Many fans entered the offseason believing the Orioles needed a few more players to get back into contention. They looked on aghast when the club traded closer Jim Johnson in early December, a move that seemed explicable only as a budget trim.
Then the club broke off a deal with Johnson's would-be replacement, Grant Balfour, because of late-developing concerns over his medical prognosis.
The old fears crept in and deepened as the Orioles went through baseball's winter meetings and then all of January without adding a big-name player. Was Angelos simply unwilling to open his wallet to give fans the best team possible? Was a return to mediocrity imminent as competitors across the American League continued to ramp up their spending?
"I really thought Peter Angelos was handcuffing Duquette and Showalter," said Prada, who now plans to attend individual games every once in a while after giving up his season tickets.
Patrick Maher, a 23-year-old fan from White Marsh, said fellow Orioles lovers dismissed him as an "Angelos apologist" when he urged patience with the club's offseason approach.
For many, the wounds from 14 straight years of losing lurked just below the surface.
Which was perhaps why the club's spending spree at the beginning of spring training produced such euphoria, both within the organization and among its most ardent supporters.
Jimenez and Cruz would improve the Orioles on the field, sure. But beyond that, the big money spent on the two players felt like a promise kept, a sign that Angelos — who declined to comment for this article through a spokesman — and his front office shared the fans' passion.
The Orioles hadn't simply taken a cheapskate pass on the offseason. They lay in the weeds until a late-developing player market yielded a few reasonably priced opportunities.
And then Angelos had stepped outside his historic comfort zone to approve a deal of more than three years for a starting pitcher, Jimenez.
"I had started to get anxious, but I think we just waited until the last minute, and it was all worth it," said Bethany Zimmerman, a season-ticket holder from Ferndale.
Zimmerman, who attended the packed Wednesday rally at Dempsey's with an orange jersey pulled over her work clothes and orange beads around her wrists, said she has rarely experienced such widespread interest in the team. Friends approached her throughout the winter to talk baseball, and she said Camden Yards is her circle's "favorite place to be in Baltimore."
The Orioles expect that passion to translate to another season of solid attendance. The club drew an average crowd of 29,105 in 2013, up 9 percent in a season when overall major league attendance dropped about 1 percent.
Bader said the club expects strong crowds for special games such as "Chris Davis action figure night" on Aug. 2 and an Aug. 8 celebration of the franchise's anniversary. But the club's performance will ultimately drive attendance, Bader added.
Fans are happily talking about the playoffs, given the club's powerful lineup and deeper pitching rotation. And even if the predictions are less ecstatic among national pundits — Sports Illustrated, for example, picked the Orioles to finish fourth in the American League East — the faithful don't seem to care.
"I think they have everybody believing," said Prada, sipping a beer at Dempsey's. "I know they have me believing."
Baltimore Sun reporters Dan Connolly and Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.
O's Opening Day payrolls
1998: $71.9 million (1st in MLB)
2003: $73.9 million (13th)
2008: $67.2 million (22nd)
2013: $90.1 million (15th)
Projected 2014: $107.4 million (14th)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun