Excitement abounds at Orioles FanFest with uncertain future ahead

Nine-year-old Allison Lutwin came to her first Orioles FanFest on Saturday morning excited to meet her favorite player, Manny Machado. Wearing an Orioles cap covered in autographs on the orange bill and a T-shirt with a caricature of Machado on the front, she waited patiently in line clutching a baseball as she approached the third baseman in the autograph line.

Over the past four years, Machado's career has reached stardom, and with that comes fans of all ages. Shortly after the annual offseason event opened for all fans, a crowd had already lined up around the gates, camera phones ready to snap photos of Machado as he strolled up to a table to sign autographs. With all respect to Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland — the session's other two signers — the fans were there to see the 24-year-old All-Star and Gold Glove winner.


As she handed Machado her baseball to be signed, Allison quickly snapped a photo herself.

"I made sure I got my photo," she said with a wide smile showing the picture on her phone of Machado signing her baseball.


Machado's play on the field had made him one of the game's brightest stars, and even though the Orioles have made an unprecedented effort to keep the club's core intact for the long term, the reality remains that rare stars like Machado don't always stay in one place for long. And free agency looms in two years. That means Lutwin's father, Ivan, has prepared his daughter for a discussion, just like the one his father had with him when his favorite player growing up, Mookie Wilson, was traded from the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989.

"That's just a part of life," said Ivan Lutwin, a Pikesville resident. "This is a business and as you get older, you realize that these guys have various reasons to possibly go play elsewhere, whether it's closer to home or somebody gives them a better opportunity to win. These guys are only playing baseball for a finite amount of years. I can't blame them for wanting to make the most amount of money. We've all switched jobs for more money. How can you blame them?"

But wide-eyed kids don't understand the business of baseball. So, included in the memorable experience of his daughter meeting her favorite player, Lutwin also reminded her to enjoy the time players like Machado are playing with her favorite team, because they might not last forever.

"I actually have been starting to talk to her about it, that he's going to be here for a few more years," Lutwin said. "I was talking to my oldest, who happens to be an Adam Jones fan, about the same thing."

Even though there has been no extension talk yet, Machado emphasized on Saturday that he wants to remain an Oriole and it's a good sign to see the team invest in keeping its own free agents.

"They want guys to stay," Machado said. "They want them to build their legacy here. They want them to bring it back like back in the day when they had Cal [Ripken Jr.] and Brooks [Robinson] and [Jim] Palmer and all these guys who stayed here a long time in their careers. They definitely want to. Obviously, there are other priorities right now and we all know that. It's not a big deal, but we've still got a couple years left to wait for and we'll see what happens."

The annual FanFest event is a reminder to all of the connection between the club and its fans. With the Orioles' success over the past five years — with three postseason appearances in that span — the FanFest crowds have spiked. An estimated crowd of more than 15,000 fans filled the Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday, surpassing last year's attendance by more than 3,500, marking the fourth FanFest crowd of at least 15,000 fans in the past five offseasons.

"Every morning I get up, I look forward to trying to figure out how to improve anything, whether it's a phone call, putting down another batting order, another what if," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "If we can get this, how would that fit in the seventh inning, the ninth inning? How would that fit against a left-handed starter? It's just like the fans are doing at home, or on a notepad at their office when they're really not supposed to, acting like they're working. I know I did it in class."


When taking the stage for a Q&A session with season-ticket holders to open the day, executive vice president Dan Duquette took notice of the crowd.

"I was walking in and I had to walk by a big line and usually when we start our talks, people trickle in. But everybody was there, so there's a lot of enthusiasm this year, which is very encouraging," Duquette said. "I told the fans, 'Thank you for your great support.' We've been able to raise our payroll every year to make our team as competitive as we can make it. The only way we can do that is because the fans are coming out to support the team, which we really appreciate."

Other than the autograph sessions and fan forums, the event included giveaways, memorabilia vendors and interactive displays, such as the popular kids press conferences, where one of the highlights of the day took place. A young fan asked Chris Davis and Darren O'Day why people didn't like Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, who was labeled as a "villain" among Orioles fans by Duquette this offseason.

"He's actually a pretty good dude," Davis said, pausing before unleashing a zinger, "… said no one ever. ... He's a guy who's easy to dislike."

The Orioles have invested in retaining their own players, and their three-year, $37.5 million deal with outfielder/designated hitter Mark Trumbo is the latest example. Last offseason, the Orioles re-signed first baseman Davis to a club-record seven-year, $161 million deal and also gave setup reliever O'Day a four-year, $31 million deal to remain in Baltimore.

As for Machado, he realizes the Orioles have invested money in free agency, and that means any movement on an extension for him is on hold. But he made it clear again Saturday that he would like to stay.


"There are other priorities out there and I get it," Machado added. "… They know I want to play here. This is my organization. This is the team that drafted me. I came up through this organization. I've done everything with this team. This is the only team I know. I'm all for it. I'd rather win a ring than sign a long-term contract. And they're doing the right things to put the pieces in the right direction."

Machado isn't the only key player nearing free agency, which could mark an unavoidable shift in the face of the club over the upcoming two years. Right-hander Chris Tillman, the team's most consistent starter since 2013, is eligible to enter free agency after this season, and both Jones and closer Zach Britton can become free agents along with Machado after the 2018 season.

With the exception of catcher Matt Wieters not returning and the loss of Nick Markakis after the 2014 season, the Orioles have been able to keep their team intact. They've talked about shrinking windows for years, and have avoided a rebuild, but the hourglass is at work again, and that gives this club a renewed sense of urgency.

"We know that a lot of the older guys are going to be free agents pretty soon, so I think there's a little sense of urgency to kind of win one now that everyone is together," Britton said. "Obviously, we know that Wiety is gone, so it would have been nice to win one with him and when we had Markakis; a lot of things. So, as this group kind of starts approaching free agency, I think we'd like to win one together before who knows what happens."