Baltimore Orioles

Duquette tells Orioles fans that reaching .500 is just starting point

Saturday was Dan Duquette's official welcome to Baltimore baseball fans.

Amid the hoopla and carnival atmosphere that filled the Baltimore Convention Center for the team's annual FanFest event, it was the executive vice president of baseball operation's introduction to Orioles fans.

Orange balloons were everywhere. Fans brought backpacks of memorabilia, posters, bats and jerseys for their favorite players to sign. Approximately 9,000 fans — about 1,000 fewer than last year — braved the aftereffects of the season's first snowstorm to attend the team's official season-kickoff event.

"That just shows that this city is loyal," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "If we were to win, I think this whole damn convention center would be packed."

But it was Duquette, a self-proclaimed builder who anchored construction projects with the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, who was under the spotlight — and scrutiny — that accompanies his task of turning around a streak of 14 losing seasons.

He participated with two Q&A sessions with fans — both with Orioles manager Buck Showalter — where he was grilled on the state of the franchise. And, yes, free-agent slugger Prince Fielder came up quickly on both occasions.

Orioles fans have heard their share of pitch speak — of three-year plans and patience for the future. Duquette, however, held to his initial stance that his immediate goal is to field a .500 team for 2012. But some fans questioned whether that is possible without making a big-splash acquisition.

"I like your thinking, brother," Duquette told one frustrated fan. "I'm with you. I'm with you. I don't have a lot of patience for rebuilding, frankly, and really, I don't have a lot of patience for just winning more games than we lose. I think that's going to start this year. I don't know where all these high-priced free agents are going to land.

"I can tell you that we are committed to fielding a competitive team, and where you start that is winning more games than you lose. If we win more than we lose, it will be an incremental step toward having a competitive team year in and year out."

Duquette preached about his priorities of stockpiling starting pitching, tapping international markets — particularly the Asian market, where the club found Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada — and building organizational depth, as well as the importance of grooming talents like Fielder through the Orioles' farm system.

"I hope that we can start drafting and developing players like Prince Fielder and bring them up through our farm system so we've got them for a long time," Duquette said.

But neither Duquette nor Showalter could dodge talk about Fielder.

"Personally, as a manager, I'm looking at our guys from within," Showalter said. "I'm not going to overlook an orchid while searching for a rose. We also spend time coveting other people's what have you. I'm looking at it from what we have from within.

"We're not going to beat around the bush," he added. "We'd love to have somebody with that background at 27 years old. But we were here last year, and we were like, 'We had to sign Vladimir Guerrero, we have to sign Derrek Lee.' I'm not saying those weren't good moves. If [Fielder is] coming in, then great, super, let's go. But I'm telling you, at one time they were all where Chris [Davis] is, where [Nolan] Reimold is, where [Robert] Andino is, where [Matt] Wieters is."

Duquette told reporters later that the team would continue to monitor the free-agent market, including Fielder — and that he would still like to add some players with high on-base percentages — but that he was "not clear on what the market is" on Fielder.

Rumors aside, FanFest was about getting back to baseball. A makeshift baseball field was in the corner of the center's bottom floor. The cartoon bird made its return on many newly sold caps. Kids crowded the speed-pitch booths and video game areas. Players and coaches participated in casual Q&A sessions.

"I'm just excited for baseball season," Baltimore resident Heather Foti said. "Just as long as we don't go out and get Johnny Damon. I have so much dislike for him from the Boston and Yankees days that I don't want it. There has to be another option."

Most Orioles players made an appearance and signed autographs for fans, which was the drawing point for Don Murphy of Westminster, who took his 8-year-old son, Ryan, to his first FanFest. They spent most of the day in the autograph lines, getting 14 signatures, including that of Ryan's favorite player, Nick Markakis.

As for the elder Murphy, he was refreshed to hear Duquette has set the bar high for this season.

"I like that he's going for .500," he said. "You've got to build the future fans early. You have to lock them in now, so that in 10 years, he can take his old man to a game and every year they're in the playoffs."

Mark Gable of Annapolis, who got Duquette's autograph Saturday to add to his collection of 7,000 signatures, also praised him.

"I think the fans of Baltimore just want to see someone actively trying to make the team better," said Gable, 40. "It's tough to get free agents to want to come here. I don't know why. But it's nice to see someone being active. I think getting the guys from Japan was the way to go. We've had Vlad. We've had Sammy Sosa. We've had Albert Belle."

After his introduction to Orioles fans, Duquette left the event knowing exactly what Baltimore wants him to deliver. And maybe it's not necessarily a high-priced slugger like Prince Fielder.

Maybe it's just hope.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity and to be working in Baltimore," Duquette said after his second Q&A session with fans. "I'm really encouraged by our fans. They've told me to give us some hope, to give us a good team, and that's what we're going to do this year."