Brian Smith, a lifelong Orioles fan, is all in this season.
Over the past few years, Smith mostly went to Orioles games only when the team offered unlimited standing room-only passes for $40 a month in August or September. But this year, after the Orioles surprised many of their own fans in 2022 by finishing above .500 for the first time since 2016, Smith has purchased a season-ticket plan for the 2023 campaign.
“After last year, everybody is fired up,” Smith, 49, of Ellicott City, said Saturday during the Orioles’ Birdland Caravan stop at Checkerspot Brewing Company in Baltimore. “I’m definitely excited to get out to more games, to see all these young guys and all the talent we’ve got.”
Smith isn’t alone in his excitement. During the Birdland Caravan this past weekend, Baltimore fans packed bars, a bowling alley and other venues to meet the team. Multiple players talked about the goal of making the playoffs — a word that pretty much hasn’t been uttered before an Orioles season in five years. And executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias declared that the Orioles’ “rebuild is behind us.”
“A couple years ago, we would come, we would lose every game, we’d go home and it wasn’t any fun,” said fan Margie DeLong, 60, of Parkville. “Now, we’ve got all those new kids. They did so well last year. We’re very happy and excited. We can’t wait for opening day.”
But for some fans, buried underneath the anticipation for the upcoming season and the Orioles’ bright future are concerns about the organization’s ownership situation and fears about whether that future will actually be in Baltimore.
“That’s always lingering in the background,” said Dennis Atkins, a 56-year-old lifelong fan.
As the club has climbed out of the cellar, going from the worst team in the sport between 2018 and 2021 to a legitimate playoff contender in 2022, other factors outside the foul lines have turned the spotlight in another direction.
The legal battle between the Angelos family ended Friday after all parties dropped their lawsuits against one another, according to court documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The feud became public in June when Louis Angelos, the younger son of Orioles principal owner and ailing patriarch Peter Angelos, filed a lawsuit against his brother, John, and mother, Georgia. Before the lawsuit was dropped, Louis Angelos alleged that John, the Orioles’ chairman and CEO, took control of the team without their father’s permission and would consider moving the team or selling it if he gains full control, specifically noting Nashville, Tennessee, as a possible destination. Georgia Angelos then filed a countersuit against Louis, claiming he sold Peter Angelos’ law firm to himself. The saga continued for nine months before coming to an apparent end Friday, with a judge also recently appointing a conservator to take control of the Angelos law firm.
John Angelos has said several times that the Orioles will remain in Baltimore, but the team is still without a long-term lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority to play at Camden Yards. The Orioles had the opportunity last week to pick up a one-time option to extend their current lease by five years. Instead, the organization passed on the option and will continue to negotiate with the MSA ahead of the lease expiration Dec. 31.
“Until I see the Orioles sign that long-term lease, I’m always going to be nervous. I never expected the Colts to leave,” said Atkins, a Columbia resident who was 18 when the Colts left in the middle of the night in March 1984. “That was never something that was going to happen. Then they did.”
However, that anxiety about the Orioles succumbing to the same fate as the Colts is one that, so far, is based mostly in the psyche of the Baltimore fan. In addition to John Angelos saying the team will remain in Baltimore, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in December that “as long as I have this job, I think you can count on the fact the Orioles are going to be in Baltimore.”
Rich Marion doesn’t have that built-in defense mechanism that other Baltimore fans have. Marion, 55, of Catonsville, is a converted New York Yankees fan who started rooting for the Orioles in the 1990s after he moved to the area. In fact, he was living outside Indianapolis when the Colts moved there, and he remains a Colts fan to this day. So while he understands the reasons other fans are perturbed, he’s not worried.
“I see it in my friend group. They’ve been burned before. But I’m not a career Baltimore guy, so I tend to take [John] Angelos for his word,” Marion said. “I’m 90% hopeful that a [new lease] is going to work out.”
DeLong, meanwhile, doesn’t care at all about the lease negotiations or the goings-on of the Angelos family.
“I block it out,” she said.
She’s just focused on the team and its young core with current or former top prospects like Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez — the last two of whom were also at Checkerspot on Saturday for the caravan event. The Orioles have the consensus top farm system in the sport, with Baseball America ranking eight Baltimore prospects inside its top 100.
“It’s just a buzz, an energy that you feel,” Rutschman said about the fan presence Saturday. “Coming to events like this, you just see that people are excited, and when you feel that kind of encouragement and support, it only helps everyone come together and continue to try and do great things.”
The Birdland Caravan, the Orioles’ replacement for FanFest, returned this past weekend for the first time since 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic and the MLB lockout canceled the tours in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The four-day tour had stops from Frederick to Baltimore to Salisbury.
“Being up here in Maryland, you get to experience the fans, and they love the O’s, they love the Birds, and it’s cool to see this fan base kind of get behind the team now,” Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad said. “The team is kind of up and coming, had a good season last year and just building upon it. It’s cool. The city loves baseball, and we love the fans, too. It makes it a lot of fun to play when the stadiums are packed and you’ve got the city behind you. That’ll be a lot of fun in the future.”
Last year, the Orioles’ success was unexpected. FanGraphs gave Baltimore just a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs, and the club went until the final week of the campaign before being eliminated.
Marion said 2022 was the “most enjoyable” season he’s had as a fan, even more than the Orioles teams from 2012 to 2016 that led the American League in wins in that span and made the playoffs three times. The reason, Marion said, is the way the front office is building the roster — through the rebuild, from the ground up, with top prospects aplenty.
“I feel like we’re doing it right,” he said. “We’re doing everything you should be doing as an organization.”
This offseason, the hope from a portion of the fan base was that Elias would sign a big-name free agent to usher in a new era of baseball in Baltimore following his declaration of “liftoff” after selling at the 2022 trade deadline. The Orioles instead continued with their deliberate, cost-friendly approach, acquiring a handful of players — starting pitchers Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin, second baseman Adam Frazier, catcher James McCann and reliever Mychal Givens — that “plugged holes” and “boosted and reinforced the internal talent” already on the roster, Elias said. The Orioles’ projected opening day payroll is $64.9 million — a 50% increase over last year but still the second-lowest mark among all 30 MLB teams, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
“Sure, I’d rather have Jacob deGrom than Kyle Gibson, but I trust what Mike Elias is doing,” Smith said.
Without significant investments and coming off an overperforming 2022, Marion recognizes it’s possible that the Orioles could “regress” in 2023. While Elias has repeatedly said this offseason that the goal is to make the playoffs, sportsbooks don’t see that happening. DraftKings has the Orioles’ over/under for wins at 76.5 — the lowest in the vaunted AL East and lower than the 83 they won last year.
“They overachieved last year. That’s the challenge,” Atkins said. “You overachieve last year, now you’ve got to live up to that.”
Smith just cares about the team being in contention throughout the season. He hopes 2024 is the year the Orioles take a big leap — and that’s where his concerns about the future creep in. The lease situation doesn’t bother him; instead, it was whether the legal fighting between the Angelos brothers, which came to an end Friday, or the MASN dispute would impact the front office’s ability or willingness to spend the money needed to compete for a World Series.
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“We’re ready to take off — or ‘liftoff,’ to use Elias’ word — and it would be a super shame if we were stripped of that because of budgetary reasons that wouldn’t allow us to even spend like a midmarket team,” Smith said.
Atkins realizes that fans like Smith, who aren’t anxious about the Orioles leaving town, are probably right.
“I can’t fathom the Orioles leaving,” Atkins admits.
So why is he still worried about it?
“Because the Colts left.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.