Taz Whitley proudly raised the plastic cup in his right hand.
“Mike Bordick gave me this beer,” Whitley said Saturday at the Calvert Brewing Company in Upper Marlboro. “How awesome is that?”
The feeling of incredulity the 41-year-old native of Arlington, Virginia, had was shared by many other attendees throughout this weekend’s Birdland Caravan, the Orioles’ three-day tour of the region featuring front office members, coaches, and current and former players. With spring training beginning Tuesday in Sarasota, Florida, when pitchers and catchers report, the series of events represented the Orioles’ offseason finale.
Birdland Caravan unofficially replaced the Orioles’ traditional FanFest, held annually at the Baltimore Convention Center. Instead, the team took buses around the state, visiting Ellicott City, Annapolis, Aberdeen, Timonium, Bowie, Westminster, Hagerstown, White Marsh, Frederick, Fallston and Fort Meade, as well as York, Pennsylvania. Rather than bring fans to Baltimore, the Orioles went to them.
The planning for the caravan began in late October, only a few weeks after the Orioles announced a new senior management team on the business side of the organization.
“First and foremost, I think we wanted to figure out a way to engage with fans and go out to our fans and bring Orioles baseball to the fans,” said Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president of community development and communications. “This was top priority.”
The leadership team, which along with Grondahl features T.J. Brightman (senior vice president and chief revenue officer), Greg Bader (senior vice president of administration and experience) and Lisa Tolson (senior vice president of human resources), formed a committee composed of members of various departments and asked them to come up with fan engagement ideas. One of those produced December’s Winter Warm-Up event at Camden Yards. Another was Birdland Caravan.
The weekend included public meet-and-greets and happy hours, as well as private and community events. From Friday to Sunday, Orioles fans throughout the state had the chance to meet executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias; manager Brandon Hyde; a group of players that included reigning Most Valuable Oriole Trey Mancini and top prospects Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle and Grayson Rodriguez; and team Hall of Fame members Bordick and Eddie Murray, among other members of the organization.
“This is wonderful,” Elias said at Saturday’s happy hour stop near Bowie. “This is a really good opportunity for us to get out of Baltimore, come out to some other parts of the market and really interact with some of our most passionate fans. It’s the middle of winter. Spring training’s about to start. We’re excited about going down there, but just to come out here and see everyone in orange and black, all these people, the grassroots Orioles fans, it means a lot to me.”
Birdland Caravan didn’t include a stop in Baltimore, but Grondahl said the Orioles have plans to have various fan engagement events throughout the season, the second in a rebuild that could see the Orioles once again lose more than 100 games.
That situation, with the Orioles’ home attendance in 2019 marking the team’s lowest since moving to Camden Yards in 1992, makes connecting with the fans perhaps more important than it ever has been.
“I’m sure they want to [have these events], but they also have to,” said Randy Phelps, 64, of Severn. “They need to because you have to try to keep fans’ interest up because, let’s face it, they’re in a rebuilding period, they’ve been in a rough stretch here. We’ve been in them before, but when the team does well, the fans come out to the stadium, they support the team, and even now, they’re supporting the team. But they need to keep doing it.
“It’s great for the fans, and I hope they continue to do these kinds of things.”
That’s the plan. With many of the public events having hundreds of attendees, Birdland Caravan “surpassed our expectations,” Grondahl said. Especially given the success, the Orioles plan to have similar events throughout the year and next offseason, likely with more stops along the way.
“We’re honoring the past of the Orioles, but we’re kind of starting with a blank slate, and just really trying to not just kind of rest on things that we’ve done in the past,” Grondahl said. “This is ultimately us getting our hands in grassroots. I feel like it’s a win for us. It’s a win for the communities that we’re in. Personally, I’m very proud of it.”
The Orioles participating savored being involved, as well, and bonded with people throughout the state, whether it was by playing games at an elementary school or serving beers at a brewery.
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“It’s been amazing,” Mancini said Saturday. “It’s a lot different from FanFest, obviously. I think it’s a really cool idea and a different twist on how we’ve been doing things the last few years. Going out and reaching all these communities throughout the state, it’s great to come out here and all over the place and go see the fans in their hometowns.”
“Just an incredible experience,” Hyde said Friday. “Being out in the community and seeing the passion that people have for Orioles baseball, you lose sight of that sometimes when you’re in the grind of a six-month season. To be able to take some time to go visit fans is really rewarding.”
The inclusion of prospects such as Rutschman, Mountcastle and Rodriguez — all former first-round draft picks — in the caravan gave fans a taste of a future that all within the organization hope is brighter.
“An event like this is more about where we’re heading, not necessarily where we are now,” said Brightman, a member of the Orioles’ management team. “A lot of the things that we’ve done over the last couple of days is to showcase the talent that’s coming, the stars of the future, and this gives the fans an idea of what’s going on behind the plan. It’s also a way for us to say thank you to them for sticking to us during the rebuild. People appreciate where we’re going, and that’s what this is about.
“It’s exceeded our expectations, and we’re going to build from it.”