The Orioles have spent the last three years reinvigorating their fan base and restoring the luster to a franchise that lay as deep in the dumps as any in baseball for more than a decade. But with a disappointing season ending and some of the team's top players headed for free agency, the mood for Baltimore baseball fans is suddenly gloomy.
Cardboard boxes nearly outnumbered players in a subdued Orioles clubhouse this past week after they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. It was a scene not anticipated by manager Buck Showalter, the players or fans as they looked ahead to a 2015 season in which the Orioles would seek to defend its American League East title.
But the eager dreams of April faded during a brutal late-summer stretch that saw the Orioles lose 12 of 13 games. And the club was left with the painful reality that it had never adequately replaced departed free agents Nelson Cruz or Nick Markakis.
Reports have swirled of dissension between Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette (both have denied any trouble). The Orioles still have not developed a No. 1 starting pitcher and no one seems terribly optimistic owner Peter Angelos will dig deep in his wallet to re-sign potential free agents Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen and Darren O'Day.
This is still a fan base with traumatic memories of 14 straight losing seasons. For all the joys experienced since 2012, there lingers a real fear of falling right back into the old precipice.
"I think they're headed back to a bad place," said longtime fan Terry Harbaugh of Chambersburg, Pa. "It all started when they didn't re-sign Cruz. I don't think they'd be where they are right now if they'd signed him. I'm liable not to buy season tickets again if they don't bring back some of these guys."
His discomfort has deepened as rumors of trouble between Showalter and Duquette have stirred memories of the unsettled front offices that oversaw the club's bleakest seasons.
"When I start hearing things like Buck's not getting along with some people now, I know it's about them not making moves to help the team," Harbaugh said.
Though frustration with Angelos waned when the team was headed for the playoffs, it seems to be resurfacing as fans resign themselves to possibly bidding Wieters and Davis farewell.
"It's heartbreaking. Truth be told, I'd like to see a change in ownership," said Locust Point resident Marci Ross. "I think we need to become more than just the best minor league team in the majors. I don't want to be in negative town, but I think we're only going to go so far as long as we have the current philosophy. We seem to develop players, and then the resources aren't there to keep them."
She and a friend showed up at Camden Yards on a rainy Tuesday evening, though the Orioles had been eliminated from contention. They noted the lack of buzz in the ballpark and in the city compared to 2014 or 2012.
Winning teams good for city
Ross pointed out what a tough year Baltimore has endured with fallout from Freddie Gray's death in police custody. Now more than ever, she said, the city needs successful teams to buoy its reputation and its spirit. Not only have the Orioles struggled, but the Ravens, who have been to the playoffs six of the last seven years and won a Super Bowl in that time, started the season with three straight losses before Thursday night's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Strangely, the Orioles' most memorable game of the year was probably its April 29 victory over the Chicago White Sox, played before an empty stadium because of the civil unrest related to Gray's death.
"Sports is a big part of the American psyche," Ross said. "Having this stadium full of people is really good for our city. It makes our city a better place to live and work."
Home attendance dipped for the first time since 2010, from 30,805 a game (13th in the league) to 29,114 (19th) entering Saturday, though the average crowd was still the club's second best since 2005.
Terry Cook of Parkville didn't even attend the last four games on his season-ticket plan because he was disgusted the Orioles failed to take more decisive action at the July 31 trade deadline.
"The organization has shown me nothing as a fan that it is committed to long-term success, has any sort of plan or, quite frankly, cares," he said.
Cook actually wanted the club to deal its veterans at the deadline and audition younger players with an eye on starting fresh in 2016. He's tired of watching the Orioles try to get by with bargain pick-ups as they did in their efforts to replace Cruz, who entered the weekend with 44 home runs for the Seattle Mariners, and Markakis, whose .370 on-base percentage would have led the Orioles this year.
"It is an impossible strategy," Cook said of Duquette's bargain hunting. "One that is destined to fail at some point. And it finally has."
Though the Orioles have ranked in the middle of the pack in payroll (they began this season 17th at a projected $110 million, according to the Associated Press), Duquette has cautioned fans not to expect a sudden turn toward long-term, expensive signings. He has said he hopes to re-sign Davis.
Cupboard not bare
It would be wrong to suggest the outlook is entirely bleak. With Adam Jones in center field and Manny Machado at third base, the Orioles have two stars to build around for years to come. Second basemen Jonathan Schoop also showed signs of future stardom, and starter Kevin Gausman remains a tantalizing if erratic talent.
Jones, who is signed through 2018, has already begun publicly lobbying team officials to spend more freely and to make Davis a priority.
Showalter acknowledged the difficulty of blocking out the uncertain offseason ahead. Wieters, Davis, O'Day and Chen have all played vital roles in the club's resurgence. Wieters and Davis rank among the most popular players with fans, and O'Day is among the most respected veterans in the clubhouse. Davis also regained his power stroke after a difficult 2014 and led the American League in home runs with 45 going into the weekend.
"They're not used to blocking it out," Showalter said. "These are friends of theirs. These are very close. ... You go through the things that we've gone through together, sure you think about it. … They stay in touch and that won't change, regardless of what happens this offseason. Believe me, they know what's going on. There are so many things that are unspoken, a look. Everybody knows what's going on."
Davis spoke of his bittersweet feelings recently as he dropped his belongings into a tall wardrobe box.
"I'm going to pack my stuff up so I don't constantly think about it," he said. "There's a number of guys in here where there's a good chance they're not going to be around."
Davis has long known he'd face a difficult decision this offseason between the town where he became a star and potential riches in another city.
"You look over the last four years, they've been extremely fun," he said. "I think 2012 was a magical year that really put us back on the map as a franchise to be reckoned with. … We're proud of what we accomplished, so it's going to be sad to see some of these guys go and turn the page."
Although the recent success has brought joy back to the locker room and to Camden Yards, seeing the boxes in the clubhouse and players packing up was a reality check for all involved.