Orioles fans feeling brighter about Opening Day after Alex Cobb signing

Tim Cooke had just stepped into the bathroom when he heard his normally reserved brother, Paul, utter a rare expletive from the next room of their downtown Baltimore apartment.

He rushed out to ask what was amiss.

“We just signed Alex Cobb!” Paul informed him.

“That’s amazing,” Cooke said, his expectations rising rapidly for the 50 or more Orioles games he and his brother plan to attend in 2018.

The exchange was mirrored around the city last week when the Orioles made their biggest splash of the offseason with just nine days to spare before their March 29 opener at Camden Yards.

Fans had fallen into a dark mood, beginning with the team’s collapse last September and continuing through an offseason dominated by trade speculation surrounding the team’s best player, Manny Machado.

The Orioles’ most ardent supporters fretted not just about the team’s threadbare starting rotation and long playoff odds for 2018 but about the prospect of drifting back into the abyss of losing that swallowed the franchise from 1998 to 2011. So many of the club’s key figures from recent successful seasons — Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, closer Zach Britton, manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette among them — are coming to the end of their contracts.

“It started to feel like the bad old days in the middle of last season,” said Julie Saxenmeyer, a 42-year-old Orioles fan from Cockeysville.

One signing did not wipe away fans’ deeper misgivings. But the club’s four-year, $57 million commitment to Cobb, one of the top starters on the market this offseason, at least changed the conversation heading into Thursday’s season opener against the Minnesota Twins.

Fans’ glum offseason outlook flowed from their memories of the hopeless time before the current era of of Machado, Showalter and Jones. Late-season collapses, underwhelming prospect development and failed free-agent pursuits were the rule for more than a decade as the city watched its once-proud franchise sink to the lowest rungs of Major League Baseball purgatory.

So fatalism bubbled up quickly when the Orioles lost 19 of their last 23 games in 2017 and then seemed resigned to losing Machado, the best position player they’d drafted since Cal Ripken Jr.

The Machado issue — he’s a free agent after this season and will command an enormous contract on the open market — divided fans into two camps: those frustrated by the lack of negotiations for a long-term extension and those who wanted the young star traded for a replenishing batch of prospects.

The actual result — no movement on an extension and no trade — seemed to satisfy no one.

Fans expect to watch Machado flee to another city next winter and find the prospect particularly galling because the club committed almost $200 million to strikeout-happy sluggers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo the previous two offseasons.

“The idea of losing him while being stuck with the Davis blunder bothers me immensely,” said Ralph Watson, a season-ticket holder and Defense Department mathematician from Severna Park. “Don’t forget about [second baseman Jonathan] Schoop, too. I doubt we will pay to keep him.”

Saxenmeyer also worries about the club losing Jones, her favorite Oriole of all time.

Add it all up and she sees a team stuck in no man’s land between one last stab at contention and an honest rebuild. She worries the Orioles’ mediocrity will become more entrenched if they’re fringe contenders as the trade deadline approaches and they bypass a final chance to deal Machado.

“A team should either be buying or selling. The O's are completely wishy washy here,” Saxenmeyer said. “My prediction for this season is right around .500 and fourth place, nowhere near contending for even the second wild card. But they'll hang around long enough to convince [owner Peter] Angelos to keep Machado, which means they'll get nothing for him when he leaves. It's a terrible strategy, and I fear 2019 will be the start of another decade of terrible baseball in Baltimore.”

Beyond Machado, the Orioles took their usual cautious approach to the offseason. They signed journeyman starter Andrew Cashner and brought back Chris Tillman, who pitched through shoulder woes and finished 2017 with a 7.84 ERA.

Neither move made much of a ripple in the broader baseball world, where projection systems and prognosticators consistently pegged the Orioles as a fourth- or fifth-place team in the American League East.

Baltimore fans are used to such low expectations from the outside. They even relish them. The difference this time was that many Orioles diehards seemed to agree with the gloomy outlook.

Fans began expressing their discontent at the box office even before last season. After the club initially returned to the playoffs in 2012, attendance at Camden Yards spiked to 29,106 per game in 2013 and 30,426 per game in 2014. But the average declined to 26,819 in 2016 (despite another playoff appearance that year) and 25,042 last year, easily the worst since 2011, when the Orioles drew just 21,672 per game.

The Orioles are trying various countermeasures, including a promotion that will offer free upper-deck tickets to as many as two kids 9 and under who accompany a paying adult. They’ll also lower starting prices for popular foods such as hot dogs, beer and popcorn, and for merchandise such as jerseys, t-shirts and caps.

“We have a lot of new fan initiatives and concepts that might encourage someone who’s on the fence or for whom affordability might be an issue,” Orioles vice president of communications and marketing Greg Bader said.

Though the Orioles currently expect attendance to be in line with last year, they hope such experiments will improve interest in 2018 and especially long-term. They know winning is the true antidote.

Watson, for example, held on to his 13-game season-ticket plan for the seventh straight year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll do the same next offseason.

“Whether or not I renew for next year will depend on what happens to Machado and Schoop and the attention to pitching,” he said. “I would still attend games, but I wont reinvest if management doesn’t.”

The Cooke brothers are inherently optimistic fans. They don’t require the Orioles to be world beaters. “Some of the best games and times we’ve had at the park have been when expectations weren’t high,” Tim Cooke said.

Yet he considered giving up at least part of his season-ticket commitment — he and Paul pay for both a 13-game plan and a 29-game plan — for the first time since 2010.

“It was the first time I’ve felt a little hesitation in renewing,” the 36-year-old Cooke said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to put out all that money and see the season go to waste.”

But his reservations began to fade with the dawn of spring training and the Cashner signing. Then the Cobb signing pushed him right back to believing the Orioles will contend for a postseason berth.

“Everything they’ve done the last four weeks has gone a long way for me,” he said.

His brother harbors some longer-term concerns, especially if Showalter and Duquette depart after this season, when their contracts are up.

But Paul Cooke stands by that merry profanity he unleashed last week when news of the Cobb signing broke. And really, how else would you want to enter a new season?

“Logically, I know one player can’t make that big of a difference,” the 34-year-old Cooke said. “But I think it’s a huge deal. For me, it took them from, ‘If things break right, maybe 87-88 wins and a playoff spot,’ to more of a full team now and legitimate contenders. … I lean toward optimism. I don’t see any reason not to.”

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