15 years ago this team was the darling of this city's eye and a model franchise. Then it happened…
So it was 1995, and the Baltimore Orioles were moving up in the world. That offseason they lured Pat Gillick out of retirement to be the GM of his hometown team, then got a guy who had won a World Series as both a player and as a coach in Davey Johnson to take over running the club on the field. They had one of the most beloved players in the game, the reigning Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, the guy who “saved baseball” after the strike of 1993-94 had decimated fan loyalty just by going to work every day, Cal Ripken Jr., and they were playing in what was pretty much universally considered the Crown Jewel of stadiums, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
And then, it all started falling apart.
It wasn't really noticeable at first, but looking back it all makes sense. First, Baltimore gets back into the NFL when Art Modell moves the Cleveland Browns here. Sure, there was a CFL team playing here, but the vast majority of fans looked at them like they were the only substitute available for what they really wanted. When you want Ben and Jerry's but all you get offered is frozen yogurt, you eat the fro-yo and get what satisfaction you can from it. But if someone hands you a pint of Cherry Garcia and says “dig in”, you drop that bowl of fro-yo and dig in. Who cares if they took it from someone else? Especially when that other person just got a coupon for a replacement pint that was going to be valid in a few months anyway (does that last analogy betray the fact that I am on a diet?). The team is playing in the old stadium that the Orioles and the CFL Fro-Yos have left behind, but they are getting their new playpen right next to Camden Yards in a few years, and that means less parking and more distractions/delays for your fans. That can't be good. But luckily you are winning games and making the playoffs, so you are still selling out every game and drawing 3 million + fans every year.
What really started the downward spiral happened in the offseason of 1997 and into 1998. Peter Angelos let his ego get in the way of the best interests of the team and he drove Gillick and Johnson (who had just won AL Manager of the Year) away from the franchise. The 98 Orioles started out pretty good, but they faded and wound up with a losing record (something that would become routine over the next dozen years or so). And the Baltimore Ravens moved into their shiny new stadium next door to the O's. The Orioles still drew a lot of fans, and the Ravens still couldn't win more than 6 games in a season, but seeds were being planted. In the 1998 offseason the Ravens hired Brian Billick as their new head coach and started making real improvement. Conversely the Orioles continued to make the wrong decisions in both player, coach, and front office choices. The next thing you know, the Ravens are Super Bowl champions/perennial playoff contenders, the Orioles are languishing in 4th place in their division year after year (and only spared last place because of the ineptitude of the Tampa Bay [Devil] Rays), and a city that was known for its football fervor for years (back in the heyday of the Baltimore Colts, Memorial Stadium was known as “The World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum” during football season and as the place that couldn't sell out a home game during a 3 year stretch when the Orioles made it to the World Series every year) had returned to its roots and the Orioles only sold out games against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox because their fans had the money to travel down to Baltimore. And so it has been ever since.
Most sports fans know that their is a looming showdown between the NFL owners and the players, and unless some all but miracle breakthrough in negotiating occurs, there will be a strike / lockout in 2011. Now at the same time as all of this was developing the Orioles started making some fundamental changes. They brought in Andy MacPhail to oversee the team, ad Angelos has learned his lessons and stays out of the day-to-day running of the team. MacPhail started improving the farm system, and in the last year it has started to show real dividends on the major league level. This past year's free agent class was not all that spectacular, but MacPhail went out and took care of the most glaring needs of a team that looks to be on the rise (1st and 3rd base, middle relief, closer, and a front line veteran starting pitcher to eat some innings and teach the Young Guns what it really means to be a major league pitcher). No one reasonably expects this team to be in the playoff hunt this year, but getting to respectability can be and IS expected, and a big free agent signing in the 2010-2011 offseason is also reasonable to forsee. And if the Orioles can move forward at a reasonable pace in 2010 and improve again in 2011 (to at least be in the wild card hunt in August and September), while at the same time not having to contend with football crazy fans having to divide their sports spending dollar, well, there might just be a return of some Oriole Magic.
And wouldn't THAT be something…
About the Author
Written by Ron Burr
Ron is a lifelong resident of Maryland and has been a passionate player and fan of sports for as long as he can remember. When he is not watching the games or explaining to his lovely wife why he is cursing at the television, he runs an improv/sketch comedy troupe, Drop Three. He can't hit a curveball or run a sub 4.5 40 yard dash, but he knows the games and loves talking about it with anyone. Differing opinions are welcome and encouraged!