Saturday, September 30 2023

BALTIMORE – Initially, it was the Baltimore Orioles who made the fans disappear, first with some hideous play that produced a franchise-worst 115 losses in 2018, and then with a cold-blooded rebuild that offered little reason to frequent Camden Yards.

For good measure, a global pandemic interceded as the rebuild lurched into some of its lowest points, COVID-19 barring fans from the stands and emptying the surrounding streets of curious onlookers.

“The COVID year was really weird,” outfielder Austin Hays, an Oriole since 2017, ruminated Friday morning, “to walk the streets of Baltimore and not see Baltimore jerseys and orange everywhere.”

Yet as these Orioles won four of their first seven games this season and returned for their 2023 home opener, the men who endured all that professional darkness and the young jewels that were their rewards for all that suffering saw far different sights than sounds.

For Adley Rutschman, the franchise catcher and No. 1 overall pick made available thanks to all those losses in 2018, it happened on the way to work Friday. A car pulled up alongside him, the driver clamoring for Rutschman’s attention.

He was clad in Rutschman’s No. 35 jersey.

For manager Brandon Hyde, it came the previous two nights, out and about town and realizing fans greeted him with pleasantries and excitement, rather than, well, perhaps not knowing who he was at all.

“That’s really nice, honestly,” says Hyde, who managed 108- and 110-loss teams in 2019 and 2021, respectively. “You want the fanbase to feel good about your team and you want people to want to watch your club.”

Baltimore's mascot celebrates Friday's win over the Yankees.Baltimore's mascot celebrates Friday's win over the Yankees.

Baltimore’s mascot celebrates Friday’s win over the Yankees.

And when Hays got up and at ‘em early Friday, it looked a lot more like it did before Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop were traded, before the roster was loaded with 14 players toting less than a year of experience, before pathetic play and a pandemic alike drove unrestricted crowds to less than 7,000 some nights.

“I was driving to the field this morning at 8:30,” says Hays, “and there’s Baltimore fans everywhere, there’s jerseys everywhere. That’s how it was before the COVID days. To see the streets of Baltimore covered in Orioles jerseys again is really nice.”

No, Friday’s opener, a 7-6 triumph over the New York Yankees before a sellout crowd of 45,017, was not a culmination.

The Orioles were a nice little surprise last year, crawling out of the darkness with 83 wins and a minor threat to win a playoff berth. The offseason came not with significant reinforcements but rather a tentative endorsement from GM Mike Elias, in the form of innings-eating starter Kyle Gibson and useful infielder Adam Frazier.

Earnest contention in the AL East – perhaps at its most rugged since the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 – won’t arrive without significant resources allocated by chairman and CEO John Angelos, a concept hardly buttressed by a tepid offseason and a series of curious media forays by Angelos.

Yet Friday was not a time for fans to wonder if the club might ever tender a nine-figure contract to a free agent superstar – or even to retain one of their own, like Rutschman someday soon.

Gunnar Henderson made his big-league debut for the Orioles in 2022.Gunnar Henderson made his big-league debut for the Orioles in 2022.

Gunnar Henderson made his big-league debut for the Orioles in 2022.

No, this was instead a day for fans to celebrate a franchise’s escape from baseball purgatory – and for its players to ponder what they might accomplish together.

The home clubhouse at Camden Yards has a drastically new look, and it’s not because of the new carpet or paint job. Instead, it’s like the recent pages of Baseball America come to life.

Rutschman’s locker has moved to the center of the room – Adam Jones and Chris Davis territory back in the day – befitting the 2022 Rookie of the Year runner-up. He passed on baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect status to infielder Gunnar Henderson, who’s now a heavy favorite to win 2023 top rookie honors.

And on the back wall is Grayson Rodriguez, the consensus No. 1 or 2 pitching prospect in the game the past two years, and who made an emotional major league debut in his home state of Texas on Wednesday.

A line drive off Kyle Bradish’s ankle forced Rodriguez’s call-up, which meant the 23-year-old would hop a charter with the big club and walk Baltimore’s Opening Day’s orange carpet with his longtime pals.

It is a moment they won’t soon forget.

“We’ll be able to talk about this experience our whole lives,” says Henderson, “because outside of baseball players, we’re also best friends off the field.”

They made more memories Friday.

The Camden Yards crowd was engaged from the start, loudly saluting Rutschman and Rodriguez during their pregame intros, erupting when Rutschman lofted a game-tying single into left in the sixth, and roaring when reliever Bryan Baker cleaned up a no-out, two-on jam in the seventh, culminating when he punched out Isiah Kiner-Falefa to leave the tying run at third.

There have been – and there will be – many days and nights when Yankees fans badly outnumber Orioles rooters here. This was not one of them.

“Tonight,” says Hyde, “was a Baltimore crowd all the way through.”

Says Baker: “It was electric from the start.”

Henderson, meanwhile, expanded his rookie portfolio with a single and run-scoring double. Ramon Urias, the veteran in this ultra-talented infield, drove in the go-ahead run and made a gorgeous backhand stab of a Jose Trevino grounder to initiate a 5-3 double play, setting the stage for Baker’s histrionics.

They’ll do it again Saturday night and Sunday, an AL East race that will be unrelenting.

And Baltimore, for once, won’t just be a stopover. Friday showed that it once again can be a destination, especially for the fans who filled the place.

“Today,” says starter Dean Kremer, “I think we definitely outnumbered them.”

It won’t be the last.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baltimore Orioles riding good vibes with rebuild finally paying off

Source: Yahoo Sports


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