Conventional wisdom tells us this is not going to be a good year for the Orioles. The first full season of a rebuilding project seldom is, so it would be easy enough to write the whole thing off as irrelevant to the fans and the city.
It is anything but.
The Orioles might lose 100 games or more. They might be the kiddie corps laughingstock of the major leagues, but they are still important to the fans and to a city that is going to need all the help it can get to rebuild its social infrastructure and its national reputation.
If you haven’t noticed, there hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of Baltimore the past few years, and the worst of it has had a measurable impact on a sharp four-year decline in attendance at Camden Yards. That’s reason enough to recognize there is — at the very least — a symbolic connection between this troubled town and a baseball team trying to rise from its own ashes.
Make no mistake, the fortunes of a mere sports team pale next to the travails of a city with an insane murder rate, a fractured public education system and a variety of other social ills. But there’s a reason cities all over the world spend millions and billions of dollars to build facilities to house popular professional sports teams.
The Orioles are extremely important to Baltimore, as are the Ravens, who also have seen local interest in their product diminish. The Ravens finally bounced back from a series of disappointing years this past season to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Orioles, because of the difference in how Major League Baseball and NFL teams are built and maintained, are going to need more time to get back up after a late-season collapse in 2017 and a devastating 115-loss performance last year.
That dramatic downturn followed a five-year competitive renaissance under manager Buck Showalter and baseball operations chief Dan Duquette, a stretch that began to unravel in the aftermath of the civic unrest related to Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015.
The Orioles have lost fans in every season since then, and total attendance last year dropped to its lowest point in any season not shortened by a strike since 1978. Some of that decline can be attributed to an overall industry downturn, but the major factors clearly were the city’s continuing plague of street violence and the team’s historic competitive collapse during a season in which they thought they had a realistic chance to return to the playoffs.
By the middle of last season, there was no choice but to embark on a full-scale organizational overhaul, which started with the string of July trades engineered by Duquette and went into overdrive when both Duquette and Showalter were replaced with new general manager Mike Elias and new manager Brandon Hyde.
This rebuilt front office arrived with a mandate to install a new-age, analytics-heavy philosophy throughout the organization, something Elias brought with him from the Houston Astros after helping GM Jeff Luhnow build a last-place team into the 2017 World Series champion.
If Elias and assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal succeed in turning the Orioles into an American League East power over the next several years, there might be a lesson in that for the city. There comes a time when the same old ideas stop working and need to be replaced with new ones. In both cases, real change requires imagination, time and patience.
John and Louis Angelos, who have taken over the leadership of the franchise from their ailing father, owner Peter Angelos, appear ready to provide the time and patience. There are never going to be guarantees in a sport in which the richest teams have a clear competitive advantage, but this appears to be the Orioles’ best chance of competing with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox year in and year out.
Don’t expect a lot of specifics from the people who designed the program, but it was clear this spring that even the least experienced players in camp recognize they need to adapt to digesting a large new body of knowledge going forward.
That doesn’t mean all the old baseball principles and coaching techniques have become irrelevant. It’s still a game that requires the same physical tools, but the pitchers are already seeing the benefit of better pitch sequencing and defensive positioning, and the hitters are getting more detailed information to help them with pitch recognition and selection.
Nobody is fantasizing that all this is going to turn a 115-loss team into a pennant contender this year, but when you’ve got a roster full of kids, it’s OK to take a few baby steps. What’s important now is projecting a sense that the Orioles have changed the subject and are moving in the right direction again.
If they can do that and provide a fresh young team that’s fun to watch, it will create new hope, lure back some disaffected fans and pump more life into the area around the ballpark.
That will be good for the team. It will be good for the city. It will be good for everyone.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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