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'I'm afraid to turn on the Orioles tonight': Bleak start tests the patience of Birds diehards

The Orioles returned home this week to Camden Yards with eight wins over the season's first six weeks, and Steve Mason didn't know where it had all gone so wrong. The Baltimore resident has been devoted to the Orioles going on two decades now. For so long, early-season games like Tuesday's against the Kansas City Royals had offered the promise of some uplift. No longer.

"I'm afraid to turn on the Orioles tonight," he said Tuesday afternoon, just hours before those fears were realized on a nightmarish scale. Dylan Bundy, the team's nominal ace, became the first pitcher in modern major league baseball history to give up four home runs without recording an out. The Royals — the 12-games-below-.500 Royals — scored 10 runs in the first inning. And another postcard-perfect spring night in Baltimore was scored with the boos, groans and cries for help from the announced 10,863 in attendance wearing black and orange.

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These are trying times for the Orioles and their fans. Entering Tuesday's game, the team was on pace to lose a franchise-worst 124 games this season, 17 more than the 1988 team that started the year 0-21 and most ever in baseball's modern era. With last year's late-season nosedive, the Orioles had lost 45 of their past 57 games. Postseason hopes have all but withered up and died, with the Orioles heading into Tuesday's game already 12½ games behind the final American League wild-card spot and 17 behind the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter talks about pitcher Dylan Bundy and the 15-7 loss to the Royals. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The worst part about it: There was reason to believe this season wouldn't be like those in the franchise's dark ages. Two months ago, Howard Saks of Catonsville was down in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training with his son. The Orioles had just signed right-hander Andrew Cashner to a two-year deal and were nearing a four-year contract with right-hander Alex Cobb. They were optimistic. And then 2018 became 1988 all over again.

"Anything and everything that could happen to make them lose games happened, and it's the same thing here this year so far," he said. "Anything that could happen has happened to make them lose the games."

It's that inscrutability, that unpredictability, that has tormented fans like Catonsville's Larry Bloomer. On some days, like Wednesday's 10-7 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, the offense packs a wallop and the pitching is punchless. On others, like Saturday's 2-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics, nine shutout innings from starter Kevin Gausman somehow aren't enough.

The only constant has been the losing, and little about the club's recent history has prepared its fan base for such misery. Last year's 75-87 record was its first losing season since 2011. In between were three postseason appearances, none better than the run to the 2014 American League Championship Series.

Not-so-happy Orioles fan Gary Witt, right, of Pasadena, and friends Bobby Evans of Davidsonville and Steven Cloud, of Pasadena wait for the end of the Orioles-Royals game. Kansas City won, 15-7.
Not-so-happy Orioles fan Gary Witt, right, of Pasadena, and friends Bobby Evans of Davidsonville and Steven Cloud, of Pasadena wait for the end of the Orioles-Royals game. Kansas City won, 15-7. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

"I know the coaches are coaching the same way and I know the players are practicing and trying to get the basics down the same way," Bloomer said. "I certainly can't put my finger on it, and I'm sure they can't put their finger on it, either, but when you add all those things up, it's very frustrating."

Although interest has waned outside of the club's diehards — in another loss, the Orioles drew an announced 7,915 on April 9, the fewest at Camden Yards for a game in which fans were allowed into the ballpark — summer nights at the ballpark aren't going the way of Ubaldo Jiménez for many season-ticket holders.

Saks still plans on going to as many games as he can. "It's nice to be out there," he said.

Bloomer shares a season-ticket package with his daughter and her friend. Their fandom hasn't diminished, he said, nor will it: "We go to every game that we can. That part will not change."

They can control only so much, though. Fans surveyed for this story unanimously said they hoped shortstop Manny Machado would remain a lifelong Oriole, but acknowledged that his trade value might be too great to pass up if the franchise is overdue for an overhaul.

Unhappy Orioles fan Merrill Heim of Street sarcastically makes the choke sign as he watches the last inning. Kansas City won, 15-7.
Unhappy Orioles fan Merrill Heim of Street sarcastically makes the choke sign as he watches the last inning. Kansas City won, 15-7. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

"Got to be thinking long term," Kate Brown of Baltimore said as she headed for her seats behind home plate. Her family has season tickets, but even fans on a shoestring budget could have joined her there Tuesday night. On ticket exchange marketplace Stubhub, seats behind home plate were selling for as low as $23 before the game.

Painful as this season is, Saks said it's not time to panic yet. All-Star second baseman Jonathan Schoop returned to the lineup Tuesday after a three-week stay on the disabled list. Closer Zach Britton is eligible to come off the 60-day DL later this month. Saks invoked President Barack Obama's decade-old "Hope" campaign poster as he said of a potential turnaround: "Stranger things have happened."

But that was before the bottom fell out Tuesday night.

"Is [the season] a total loss? Ugh, God. It's definitely looking like it is," he said. "You always want to be the ultimate optimist, but ugh, God, it's very tough."

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