There were days in August and September when Lara Hall struggled to drag herself to Camden Yards.
Though she’s an optimist by nature, the 51-year-old Baltimore resident dreaded watching her beloved Orioles sleepwalk through loss after loss on the way to the worst season in the club’s 65-year history.
She looked forward to the 2019 season with “tempered” expectations, so she watched with genuine surprise and delight as a fresh version of her team won four of its first six games to start the season. This burst of success made Thursday’s home opener feel like a genuine celebration of what’s to come, even if the club’s anticipated rebuild could take years.
“How could you not be excited today?” Hall said, shortly before Orioles starting pitcher Alex Cobb delivered his first pitch against the hated New York Yankees.
There were reminders of last year’s 115-loss disaster, none more obvious than first baseman Chris Davis, who entered the game hitless and was greeted by boos from the home fans.
The damage was also evident in the number of empty green seats at Camden Yards, which is normally packed for the home opener. The Orioles drew just 19,311 fans per home game last season, the worst attendance in their 27 seasons at the downtown ballpark. Thursday’s game drew an announced crowd of 44,182, which the club called a sellout.
But the overriding message, both within and around the club, was one of excitement at the energetic start and at the chances these players have to make names for themselves.
There’s nowhere to go but up for these Orioles after a more familiar, more expensive version of the team failed so miserably last year. At least that was the hope for fans who showed up to greet them at Camden Yards and cheered raucously as they jumped to a 3-0 lead against the Yankees (whom they’d already beaten twice in New York) before losing, 8-4, after giving up four runs in the sixth inning and three in the ninth.
The differences from Opening Day 2018 were profound, starting with the names — Brandon Hyde in place of Buck Showalter, Cedric Mullins in place of Adam Jones, Richie Martin in place of Manny Machado. These fresh faces took up residence in a comfier, redesigned clubhouse, where there was no Jones to hold court with his combination of candor and barbed humor. After 8½ seasons of Showalter’s folksy intensity, Hyde conducted his first pregame news conference at Camden Yards with businesslike enthusiasm.
Hyde’s first home opener as a big league manager would have been cause for excitement no matter the circumstances. But he acknowledged the extra joy of showing up with a team that had surprised and inspired fans over its first six games.
“I think the way we played this last week was an exciting brand of baseball,” he said. “I thought we played with energy, and were just playing an exciting brand, with how we took our at-bats and the way our bullpen guys came in, how we ran the bases aggressively. So I’m looking forward to showcasing that in front of our fans.”
“This is pretty nice that it came together this way,” said former Orioles catcher and current Mid-Atlantic Sports Network commentator Rick Dempsey, beaming as he watched the revamped roster take batting practice.
Current catcher Jesús Sucre’s voice cracked as he spoke about the prospect of his wife and two children watching him run on the field as a big league starter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as good as I feel right now in my career,” he said. “I know we just started the season. I never had this opportunity in my career. This is a great feeling for me.”
Few will be shocked if the Orioles end up exactly where the preseason prognosticators put them: in last place. But those who flocked to Camden Yards on Thursday refused to put a gloomy spin on that possibility.
Hall traveled to Sarasota, Fla., to watch the Orioles in spring training, and the experience allayed her fears that 2019 could be another miserable slog.
“Players were really excited and there was a lot of energy … young, scrappy players trying to make a name for themselves,” she said.
That stood in stark contrast to 2018, when she felt like old favorites had stopped giving their best efforts.
“The one thing is: I need to get to know the players,” said Hall’s friend, Bradie Barr. “I’m excited to see that energy and how they’re going to embrace the crowd and create their own thing. Adam [Jones] had his pie throwing, but what are these guys going to do?”
There was some pain in reflecting on departed players who led the baseball renaissance that swept Baltimore from 2012 to 2016, especially Jones, who forged deep ties with the city.
“He was the heart and soul of the team,” Hall said. “He’s going to be hard to replace, as a team leader but also as a community leader.”
That said, fans have embraced the ground-up reconstruction and the man charged with leading it, first-year executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias.
“They had to rebuild,” said 60-year-old Gary Gardner of Eldersburg, who grew up watching the Orioles at Memorial Stadium. “You have to start somewhere. They have a good platform they’re building with a young team. They’re aggressive, fast. … If it’s something they can sustain for the whole season, that would be phenomenal. But I don’t think anyone is expecting much more than a very average season.”
He joked that he’d be happy if he could name every position player on the star-deprived roster by the end of the season.
No one seemed ready to predict a miracle run like the one the “Why Not?” Orioles pulled off 30 years ago, when they faced similarly bleak expectations only to remain in the pennant race until the last weekend of the season.
Fans said the 2019 Orioles need not contend to deliver a satisfying season. In fact, 23-year-old Zach Dawson of Darlington said he expects another 95 losses — at least. He’s fine with that as long as the team’s current feisty spirit persists.
“They were stuck with the same team for a while. I don’t think they were really listening to Buck anymore,” Dawson said. “When I was growing up, you had 14 straight seasons of losing baseball, but last year was the worst I’ve ever had to go through. I couldn’t even turn the games on. It’s going to take a lot to rebuild, but if it’s exciting and they’re at least trying with the pieces they put out there, that’s all I could ask for.”
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Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.