Mitchell Anest, a long-time Orioles fan, talks about how the new netting at Camden Yards might affect the fan experience. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Geordann Schilling could not ignore the subtext Thursday as he prepared to watch another season of Orioles baseball at Camden Yards.
Sure, the Bel Air resident was eager to cheer his team and its rebuilt starting rotation from his vantage behind home plate. But sitting there in his Adam Jones jersey, flanked by his pal, Sean Duggan, in a Manny Machado jersey, Schilling was equally aware that he might be watching the beginning of the end for this version of the Orioles.
“It’s kind of on everyone’s mind,” he said, ticking through the reasons why Jones and Machado might be playing their final opener in orange and black.
The Orioles began 2018 with a 3-2, 11-inning win over the Minnesota Twins before a sellout crowd of 45,469.
But for all the optimism and eagerness inherent to the beginning of a new season, fans and players acknowledged the competing reality that many of the team’s key figures — from Machado to Jones to manager Buck Showalter — are entering the final season of their contracts.
These men brought hope to Baltimore baseball fans after a generation of relentless losing, and it’s possible, even likely, they won’t all be together at this time next year.
“Those three, I think they represent us quite a bit,” said Michael Privitera of Gaithersburg, who took a rare day off from teaching to bring his daughter to her first Orioles game. “All of them have been such great ambassadors. … It’s something you always remember — I hope she does — being here. But there’s definitely a balance of wondering if this is the last time we see these Orioles greats.”
Opening Day is baseball’s annual celebration of renewal, and Thursday afternoon at Camden Yards was no different.
One of the Orioles’ top prospects, catcher Chance Sisco, jogged down the traditional orange carpet for the first time during pregame introductions. Freshly signed starting pitcher Alex Cobb soaked up his inaugural dose of love from the Baltimore faithful.
A chuckling Showalter advised the newbies: “Make sure to pick up your feet off the carpet.”
There was a new Opening Day starter in Dylan Bundy and a new, unconventional, leadoff hitter in first baseman Chris Davis.
But even Davis cast his revamped role in the context of the club’s uncertain future.
“Look, I understand what's at stake here,” he said. “I understand the window is closing — I hate saying that, but it’s true. There’s a sense of urgency here, so whatever I can do to help the team be successful, whether that’s batting leadoff, batting in the middle of the lineup or batting in the bottom of the order, I’m up for anything.”
Showalter, meanwhile, said he sees no use in dwelling on the possible changes to come, on the fact he might never again manage Jones or Machado on Opening Day.
“I try not to let that figure in,” he said. “We’re all human. At some point in a private moment, it might cross your mind. I try to use it, if anything, as a positive, a bit of a rally.”
The most obvious change at the park itself was the extended protective netting that runs past each dugout. The Orioles announced the change, designed to shield fans from hard-hit foul balls, in January. All 30 major league teams are now on board after a young girl was hit by a batted ball at Yankee Stadium in September, bringing the issue to the forefront.
The seats immediately behind the dugouts and in the first few rows down each baseline have always been regarded as some of the best in the park — the ultimate close-up for fans who want to interact with players and experience the sudden bursts of action that define baseball.
“Will there be some folks who are disappointed? I think perhaps,” Orioles vice president of communications and marketing Greg Bader said. “But I think people can reasonably understand why it happened. And I don’t think it changes the game experience much at all.”
Mitchell Anest has sat in the front row, five seats past the end of the Orioles dugout, for the past 10 years. The Granite resident tugged on the netting with a grimace about an hour before first pitch.
“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “You could interact with the players. They’d come over and talk to you, maybe throw you their batting gloves. Especially with little kids. A little kid would come down and they’d fist bump them. We’d have more interaction, and this is just a barrier. It gives them more reason not to come over.”
He said he’s been hit by a foul ball just once, because he misjudged its trajectory coming over the cameras in front of him.
“People have to pay attention and they don’t,” he said. “They turn their head or they’re on their phones. They’re just not involved in the game.”
Chris Foster of Severn offered a more mixed assessment from his fourth-row seat. Like Anest, he lamented the loss of interaction between players and the kids who flock to the first few rows before games. But he acknowledged the momentary panic he felt in past years when line drives screamed his way. When he brought his kids, ages 8 and 10, he always made sure to sit between them and the batter so he could serve as a shield.
“This is the first time I’ve ever watched a game from behind the net,” he said. “It feels a little bit weird. But it remains to be seen if it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s no major difference.’ ”
The Orioles are hoping their new policy, of allowing kids 9 and under in for free, will bring more youngsters to the ballpark. It's just the latest of several kid-centric attractions the team uses to make the game appeal to the much-younger set and reverse a decline in attendance.
Privitera actually had no idea the net would be there when he arrived to his fifth-row seats with his 9-year-old daughter, Abigail, who was attending her first Orioles game. She was disappointed the net would likely prevent her from catching a foul ball, he said with a laugh.
“From a safety perspective, I was happy to see it,” he said. “The ball comes off the bat so fast, even if you just turn your head for a second, it could be on top of you. I don’t think it’s going to really deter from watching the game.”
Concerns about the netting paled compared to those about the team’s impending free agents.
“It’s almost a desperate feel, because this could be the last year we have that special group,” Anest said.
He’s least optimistic about the team re-signing Machado, a superstar in his prime who will likely command a massive contract next offseason. But he said he’d miss closer Zach Britton, also in the last year of his contract, even more.
“How many times have we been down one run or up one, and Zach’s made the difference in a close game?” he said. “When we didn’t have him, we would lose that game.”
“You hear Adam’s comments in the offseason about how all of his friends have rings and he doesn’t. You have [New York Yankees star] Aaron Judge at spring training saying to Manny that he would look good in pinstripes,” he said. “I don’t see how it’s not on everyone’s minds.”