Rob Mayer remembered watching the Orioles as an 8-year-old go wire to wire in 1997, staying atop their division every day that season and winning 98 games. Then he spent most of his life rooting for a losing team.
"It took till I was 23 to see them have another winning season," said Mayer, 27, of Forest Hill, of the 14-year string of losing seasons that ended in 2012. "I graduated from college before I saw them win again."
Now he worries the Orioles, who entered this season with so much promise, are in a tailspin. After recording more wins than any other American League team since 2012, the team kicked off this season winning again — in first place in the AL East at the end of April and the best record in baseball on May 9.
But since then they've lost 23 of the past 33 games and fallen to fourth with more losses than wins this year — the first time that's happened at any point in the past two seasons.
The Orioles return to Baltimore this weekend with a 32-33 record, a crowded list of injured players, shaky starting pitching and an offense that was outscored 60-17 during a six-game losing streak before breaking out for 10 runs in a win on Wednesday.
Beyond the team's immediate worries, several key players have contracts ending in the next two years, prompting some fans to worry that the team may regress and fall into another lengthy drought.
The Orioles have succeeded in recent years under manager Buck Showalter, despite being held together "by Popsicle sticks and duct tape," said Ned Bellivau, a 25-year-old fan from Annapolis who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. But last weekend's thrashing at the hands of the New York Yankees — the Orioles were outscored 38-8 over three games in the Bronx — and dropping three of four to the last-place White Sox laid bare the team's weaknesses.
"The offense isn't there, everyone's hurt — I don't know what's going on, but it's not great," Bellivau said. "It's tough to watch them right now."
Shortstop J.J. Hardy said the length of the slump has made it worse than prior losing streaks.
"This is just a long, tough stretch," Hardy said. "We know we're going to come out of it. But if people knew how to come out of it right away, we'd do it. We know it's going to take something to get us going."
Fans' hope that one of the league's best sets of power hitters will blast the team out of its slump is intermingled with the lurking fear that even if the bats get hot, the team doesn't have the arms to win.
Pitching has been at the root of the Orioles' struggles, and there isn't much immediate help in the organization. Opponents scored nearly nine runs per game during the eight-game road trip. Injuries to starter Chris Tillman, closer Zach Britton and reliever Darren O'Day have disrupted the starting rotation and the bullpen. Others, like starter Kevin Gausman and now-demoted starter Ubaldo Jiménez, rank among baseball's worst pitchers by some statistical measures.
Players on the current roster became popular among fans during home run-fueled postseason runs in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and while many in the stands acknowledge the team needs to retool, opinions vary on which moves executive vice president Dan Duquette should make.
In the next two offseasons, a large chunk of the Orioles' core could become free agents. Third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, Britton and Tillman are all in line to hit the market by winter 2018. All could draw interest from other teams if the Orioles' spiral continues until the July 31 deadline to trade players. That could give the club an opportunity to acquire talent that could help them win in the future.
"What we're doing isn't working," said Mary Pat Friedman, 45, a lifelong fan who lives in Hamilton. "We can't win all games, a pennant, a World Series just based on home runs. So as much as I would like to keep the core team intact, this is the crossroads. We have to decide whether we're going to invest in pitching or not."
Mayer likes the current roster, but fans and the front office should realize it lacks the weapons to compete, he said.
"If this is your best chance to win, you need to recognize that the core is not good enough any longer," he said. "You need to take what pieces you have and acquire some other pieces that will allow you to rebuild."
The Orioles had the league's most difficult schedule in April — and baseball's best record — before the losing stretch, said Joe Straaik, 33, of Lutherville. With three-and-a-half months to play, the team remains in the running for the American League's last playoff slot, he noted.
"The doom and gloom is a little premature," Straaik said. "People need to take a step back and remember it's a 162 game season."
He called any notion of replacing Showalter "laughable" and said he has faith in him and Duquette.
"The way [Showalter] manipulates the roster, he does everything he can with players he's given," Straaik said. "And Duquette does everything he can with the payroll he's given."
The Orioles should prioritize Machado and Jones, who are "the soul of the team," Straaik said. More than anyone else, he said, the team's future rests on the shoulders of its All-Star third baseman, who is expected to demand a historically lucractive free-agent contract after the 2018 season.
"We really need to get a sense of whether or not he's going to re-sign," he said. "If he doesn't, we need to think about the future road map of the organization."
But signing Machado to a large contract could backfire if there isn't enough money left to put together a solid team around him, said Derek Arnold, senior editor of the Eutaw Street Report, which covers the Orioles from a fan's perspective.
"I can see the arguments from both sides," said Arnold, 34. "You have a player like Machado you can definitely build around, but you can give him $400 million and maybe you'll end up being like the [Los Angeles] Angels, who have Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, and can't compete."
Arnold said he thinks the team will sell off a few assets at this season's trade deadline — "a light rebuild" — and try to make another playoff run in 2018.
Younger fans in particular tend to be in favor of a thorough housecleaning after seeing the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have success using that strategy, he said. But the word "rebuilding" alone is enough to send other fans into hysterics, given the Orioles' struggle to become competitive again in the late 1990s and 2000s.
"We remember those 14 seasons and how easily a rebuilding year can turn into a decade of losing baseball," Arnold said.
The return to Camden Yards, where the Orioles host the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend, could help the team find its rhythm, Hardy said. But he acknowledged he doesn't know what has caused the skid. The Orioles lost 11 games in a row away from home before winning Wednesday night, then lost to the White Sox, 5-2, Thursday afternoon.
"We definitely like being home, but it shouldn't be that different as the numbers say it is," he said. "I don't think anyone sits here and goes, 'We're not playing well just because we're not at home.'
"I don't know. I don't know what it is. I don't know if anyone really knows what it is, but it's definitely a tough stretch, and we all are going to continue grinding and do what we've done in the past. And hopefully all of it turns around and we are the team that we're capable of."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.