When fans made a great catch of a foul ball at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium back in the good old days, Rex Barney, legendary announcer, proclaimed over the public address system, “Give that fan a contract!”
In light of the Orioles’ painful state of affairs, maybe that's not just a corny idea.
Though younger fans may not know it, the Orioles used to be a team worth watching. Several generations ago, there was an Oriole Way. It prized pitching, defense and timely hitting. Everyone in the Orioles organization was on the same page. Minor league players were schooled in spring training to re-learn the right ways to play baseball. Enlightened ownership hired good people and stayed out of the way. Earl Weaver, who managed field operations from 1968-1982, was the first great manager to use data. Long before laptops and tablets, he kept track of statistics on plain old paper. The Orioles were celebrated as a teaching and learning organization. They stressed process and continuous improvements.
The Oriole Way was responsible for decades of magnificent baseball. It started with the Baby Birds of the early 1960s, which gave rise to decades of winning Orioles teams — from the astonishing World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 through the O's most recent world championship against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983.
Now, we are light years from the Oriole Way. The O's lost 115 games this year, the third worst record since Major League Baseball expansion in 1962. The leadership is in shambles. Manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette have been fired. Lines of authority inside the organization are unclear. Who makes the decisions? Do scouts have a clue? Is there research about where the best players come from? Is there a plan for stressing Orioles’ processes and priorities?
Worse, the O's have not kept pace with the analytics revolution. They have not invested in international scouting. They have largely ignored the international amateur draft.
What they have done is trade a once-in-a-generation talent, Manny Machado, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They didn't move him when they could have in 2017 for far better athletes in return. Instead, they have signed ball players who could never exemplify the Oriole Way: power hitters with limited speed and defensive prowess, and bargain basement pitchers with checkered histories and limited potential. In 2016, they signed Chris Davis, who has struggled mightily but is owed $95 million through 2022 — a contract that will hobble the franchise for years.
Ownership has let the organization crumble. The owner, Peter Angelos, is absent. Mr. Angelos's two sons are in nominal control — or are they? Reports of mistrust, obfuscation and inertia abound.
The result? The attendance at Camden Yards has tanked. The crown jewel of a new generation of stadiums has been abandoned by a disgusted fan base. The team is a laughingstock.
The problem is not simply Baltimore’s. A team as bad as the Orioles is bad for baseball. Sometimes a team has a plan and expects to be bad for a few years — like the Astros, of late. Even the Miami Marlins have a plan. Compared to them, the Orioles are clueless. If the Orioles don’t act, MLB should step in as a conservator.
How to fix this mess?
Get back to the Oriole Way. Establish clear lines of ownership authority. Give management license to do what has to be done, then get out of the way. Across the organization, stress: pitching, speed, defense and smart analytics. Hire a couple of organizational experts. Focus on process and commonsense process improvements. Foster collegiality, consensus and trust. Get everyone on the same page.
By the way, we are available. We are organizational anthropologists, experienced process improvers, proponents of organizational leadership and change and longtime students of the game. If not us, then hire some other fans like us — to take charge of what was, by many accounts for many years, the best franchise in baseball.
It might well be time to take Rex Barney’s exhortation — "Give that fan a contract" — genuinely to heart.
Daniel McLaughlin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a higher education consultant at Indigenous Research Associates, grew up in Baltimore and is a long-time Orioles fan. William G. Tierney (email@example.com), a long-time Red Sox and Dodgers fan, is the Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California, where he is also co-director of the Pullias Center of Higher Education.