Orioles fans have a reason for hope

For a dozen consecutive seasons, the Orioles have offered more of the same to a frustrated fan base: high-paid veterans and lightly regarded youngsters fighting and failing in the ultracompetitive American League East.

As the Orioles' season opens Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and kicks off at home Friday at Camden Yards, most national prognosticators don't give the club much of chance to rise above fourth, which would be a step up from the fifth-place basement in 2009.

Yet in talking to fans, management and players, there's a slightly different feeling this year -- that the optimism that exists every spring has a little more merit. For the first time in recent memory, the Orioles have a young core with major league baseball experience.

"The years in the past, we've been waiting to get the guys up here. We've been mixing and matching guys here and there," said Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis, 26. "I think we're at the point now where it's about winning."

It's a sentiment fans want to embrace, but are cautious in doing so, given the recent drought.

"For this year, I think there will be some major progress, and while I think .500 is a remote possibility, most of that progress will come in talent development, not wins," said Orioles fan Matt Revelle, 25, of Annapolis. "Going position by position, you can feel good about the O's, but do the same thing in comparison to the rest of the AL East, and you don't feel so good at all."

Given the information provided by the club, it's difficult to tell whether fans are ready to fully invest into the 2010 version. The Orioles drew 1.91 million fans last season, the fewest in Camden Yards' history and the third straight year in which attendance declined. Yet the drop from 2008 to 2009 was imperceptible -- an average of 831 fans per game. Based on advance ticket sales, the Orioles expect to again draw around 2 million in 2010.

"We expect to finish somewhere around there depending on how the team performs," said Greg Bader, the club's director of communications.

As is club policy, Bader would not offer specifics but said there have been some encouraging signs on the sales front this winter. This year, for the first time, the Orioles are charging a game-day ticketing fee of between $1 and $5, depending on the original price of the seat, if that ticket is purchased after 12:01 a.m. on game day. Bader said it is too early to determine whether the new policy has had or will have an effect on ticket sales for individual games, but said season-ticket renewal rates are "considerably higher" than last year's and overall season-ticket sales are "up a little bit."

"I think that has to do with our fan base expressing more confidence in the way we are heading," Bader said. "We have a lot of young players who didn't start right out of the gate with us last year. They are starting with the team this year, and I think it is something fans are excited about."

It has been a long time coming.

When Andy MacPhail, the club's president of baseball operations, grabbed the reins in June 2007, he took stock of a once-proud franchise and eventually declared an overhaul was needed. The farm system was practically barren while the majority of big-money veterans were on the downsides of their careers.

MacPhail purged the roster, dealing away stars Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard for a bevy of less-established players, including starting designated hitter Luke Scott and All-Star center fielder Adam Jones. Meanwhile, the continual losing paid off as the club added two future stars in the top five picks of consecutive amateur drafts, catcher Matt Wieters (No. 5 in 2007) and pitcher Brian Matusz (No. 4 in 2008), both 23. In announcing in October that he would bring back Dave Trembley for the 2010 season, MacPhail made it clear that the success of both the manager and the club now would be measured in wins and losses.

"As it relates to the amount of individual talent that has come on board here, I think that has come along nicely," MacPhail said. "I still would like to see the needle move in terms of team performance. But in terms of collecting talent either through the amateur draft or trades or having talent that was already in the system matriculate in the big leagues, I think as an organization we've been doing a pretty good job at that. We still have a lot of work to do, but we introduced a fair amount of talented young players."

Jones, Wieters, Matusz, Markakis, outfielders Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie, starters Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez and reliever Jim Johnson are all 26 or younger and are entering at least their second season in the majors.

To augment his rebuilding plan until some of the organization's youngsters are ready, MacPhail targeted short-term help this offseason, bringing back Tejada on a one-year contract to play third base, trading for veteran starter Kevin Millwood and signing first baseman Garrett Atkins and closer Michael Gonzalez.

"I think it's a great mix," said Wieters, who was recently highlighted in a Sports Illustrated cover story as the prototypical young catcher. "To be able to add guys like Tejada and Millwood and Gonzalez, Tejada does a great job keeping the clubhouse light and Millwood is going to be really good for the young pitchers as well as myself. I think it is a good mix this year and we can definitely learn and improve together."

The Orioles have attempted the youth-veteran combo in the past. But the young guys weren't ballyhooed industrywide and the veterans were locked in with unmovable contracts.

"Since I've been here, I think it's the best combination," said Johnson, an Oriole since 2006. "In years past, we had guys that were here that were filling spots instead of earning spots. There are a lot of guys that really stepped up this year to stake a claim."

The talent might be elevated, but the obstacles are the same. The Orioles play 54 of their 162 games against the Boston Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees, the last three American League representatives in the World Series. The Orioles were 15-39 in those contests in 2009. Despite the improvements the team has made, baseball pundits largely view the Orioles as unready to compete with their top three division rivals.

"I think the Orioles' offseason has set them up for a year of patience and watching guys get better," said Kevin Goldstein, national writer for Baseball Prospectus. "This is not their year. I think 2011 is the time for the Orioles to get taken seriously."

The Orioles' early-season schedule is particularly brutal. They play 16 straight days to start the season without a break, including a seven-game swing to the West Coast. After their first day off April 22, the Orioles face the Red Sox and Yankees in 12 consecutive games.

That reality must be balanced against what MacPhail says "is the most talented team that I've broken camp with since I've been in Baltimore. It's a younger team in a lot of respects, and I think those things are encouraging."

Whether Orioles fans are encouraged, or have become resigned to mediocrity to such an extent that any sign would be encouraging, is perhaps the biggest mystery of 2010.

"As a true fan, the thing I want to see most is a real step forward," said Orioles fan Ben Schmitz of South Baltimore. "Maybe challenge for third in the division, see an improvement in the base running, and see the young guys improve throughout the season. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe they do even better than expected. Why not?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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