Annie Rock is not a Baltimore native, but she’s adopted the Orioles. Her hometown Chicago Cubs remain her favorite, but the Orioles are her American League team, and she’s kept up with them since moving to Baltimore in 2019 for law school.
In that time, she’s largely known the club as the worst in Major League Baseball.
But recently, when she checked the team’s record — expecting to see the same abysmal, cellar-dwelling club — she was surprised.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re a game under .500,’” she said Tuesday while wearing an Orioles’ Sammy Sosa T-shirt. “It was exciting.”
The Orioles haven’t had a winning record in six years and entered this season devoid of expectations. But their efforts to rebuild, which have tested the patience of some fans, are showing signs of life. Die-hards and casual fans alike took notice as the club entered the All-Star break with a 46-46 record.
“They can jump on it,” manager Brandon Hyde said of the Orioles bandwagon. “Going into this year, for me, that was the No. 1 goal, was to have our players continue to improve, but also show Orioles fans that we are improving and that we’re putting a good product on the field.”
Despite minimal investment in their MLB roster — the Orioles’ 2022 payroll ranked last of MLB’s 30 teams as of opening day — Baltimore was only 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot after a loss Friday to the Yankees and is the biggest surprise of the MLB season. In June, the Orioles posted their first winning month in five years and followed in July by winning 10 games in a row for the first time since 1999.
“This is just proving to ourselves that we’re competing right there with everyone else,” starting pitcher Tyler Wells said. “I think it’s extremely significant for us as players, but I think it’s even more significant for the fans and showing them that the tides are turning.”
The Orioles’ winning streak before the All-Star break caught national attention and excitement just weeks after the franchise was in the spotlight for negative reasons: an ownership dispute. Louis Angelos, son of longtime owner Peter Angelos, filed a lawsuit last month against his brother, John, and his mother, Georgia, claiming his brother was attempting to take control of the team. The lawsuit also alleged the family has intended to sell the team for years and suggested, in what’s considered an unlikely scenario, that the team might move to Tennessee.
But in recent weeks, the Orioles have given fans plenty of reason to talk instead about walk-off wins, comeback performances and the future of the club.
First baseman Trey Mancini, the club’s longest-tenured player and the only holdover from its last playoff team in 2016, said the city has a different energy — one he hasn’t experienced over the past five seasons.
“The city, whenever they have a team here that they’re excited about, it’s second to none, our fan base and the energy they bring in and the love they have for this team,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Sensing ‘something good’
The Orioles have been building toward this.
When executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was hired in November 2018, he promised to form an “elite talent pipeline.” Baltimore, the hope was, would be able to consistently develop players capable of competing in the American League East, a division that entered the All-Star break this season with all five of its teams .500 or better.
Elias said recently he was happy the Orioles’ stretch of strong play demonstrated the organization’s health “so plainly for our fans.”
In many ways, the fruits of the reconstruction effort had been evident everywhere but Camden Yards.
Under Elias, the Orioles built one of the sport’s top minor league systems. Many of that system’s players were the products of drafts in which Baltimore had early selections — including No. 1 overall picks Adley Rutschman and Jackson Holliday — because of the major league team’s struggles. The club revamped its player development operation to maximize prospects’ abilities. The rebuild stretched to the lowest rungs, with a new academy in the Dominican Republic nearing completion. Once built, it will house young Latin American players, a player acquisition avenue the previous front office largely did not invest in.
For fans monitoring only what happened in Baltimore, success seemed distant. In each of their three major league seasons under Elias, the Orioles finished with one of the five worst records in the major leagues. The 2021 team suffered through a 19-game losing streak, the longest in the majors in more than a decade and tied for the fourth longest since 1900. Fans watched the Orioles’ roster fill with players cast aside from other organizations, while established members were traded away. It made it difficult to stay attached.
This year has felt different, though. Wells, in his second year on the Orioles’ pitching staff, said it’s easier to be energetic, “because it’s like anything can happen.”
“It feels like something good is going to happen at the end of the day,” Orioles All-Star closer Jorge López said.
There is no certainty Baltimore will keep its roster intact come MLB’s Aug. 2 trade deadline. Despite their improvements, the Orioles remain last in the AL East, and such teams often trade veterans with expiring contracts for younger players, as Elias has frequently done during his tenure. He acknowledged that “everything that I do or that we do has trade-offs” in regards to the deadline, meaning Baltimore’s forward-thinking process might still result in experienced players and clubhouse leaders such as Mancini or starting pitcher Jordan Lyles being moved to another team in their final guaranteed season as Orioles.
But the players are focused on winning games in the present instead of the future. Doing so frequently over the next couple of weeks might be enough to keep their experienced teammates around. Unlike recent Orioles teams, this group believes in its potential to do that.
“We’re just focused on still winning ballgames,” Mancini said. “We’re in the thick of the race right now, which is really exciting to say out loud, and that’s what we’re thinking about, rather than all the talk, the narrative being about the future and everybody in the minors coming up. This group’s been doing it, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
During their 10-game winning streak, the Orioles won three straight games in which they were losing going into the ninth inning or later, a feat only three other teams achieved in the past two decades. In recent years, Baltimore has often not been in position for such comebacks.
Of the Orioles’ league-leading 253 losses over the past three seasons, 97 came by five or more runs. That was comfortably more than any other team in that time, but their 10 such losses in the first half of this season were tied for seventh fewest in MLB.
“Last year, we get down early, and it’s just like, ‘All right, we’re done,’” first baseman Ryan Mountcastle said. “This year, when we are down early, which isn’t super often, but when we are, it’s not by too much. We’re always battling back, every single game.”
Mountcastle is part of a group of Orioles who have established themselves as the core of the organization’s future, along with catcher and former top prospect Rutschman, starting pitcher John Means, outfielders Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays and others. Mancini said he’s watched each grow into “legitimate, really good major league players.”
There are no promises Mancini will be able to see the rebuild through as an Oriole, especially as the trade deadline nears. But he believes the players he would leave behind will be better for the struggles of the past few years.
“We all know what losing feels like, and now, we have a taste of what winning feels like, and whenever you have a taste of both of them, that’s when you know,” he said.
Health and hope
Orioles fan Andy Kleiman first followed baseball as a kid when Cal Ripken Jr. set his indelible longevity streak in 1995 and Baltimore made the playoffs in 1996 and 1997. Fourteen straight losing seasons followed.
Although he gave tours at Camden Yards as a 17-year-old and remains a die-hard, the years of losing eroded his hope. He didn’t throw a parade when the Orioles won 10 straight this month, noting instead that the last time the Orioles did that, in 1999, they had a losing year. But Kleiman had to admit: “It was fun to be an Orioles fan for those 10 days.”
Kleiman and other Orioles fans, like Colin Sheehan, welcomed the fact that, during the streak, the Orioles trended on social media for positive reasons.
“I don’t think anyone expected this,” Sheehan said. “So it’s just been cool to see them win. Regardless of where the rest of the season goes, at least we got this to have hope for next year.”
At one point in May, Caesars Sportsbook placed the Orioles’ expected win total at 58 1/2. That would have given Baltimore its fourth consecutive 100-loss season, excluding 2020′s coronavirus-shortened campaign. But as of the All-Star break, that figure jumped to 76 1/2, which would be the Orioles’ most wins since 2016.
The Orioles’ path to the 2022 playoffs is difficult, especially if they deal one or more players at the trade deadline. But recent success might be less indicative of this season and more indicative of a rebuild in progress.
“There’s half the season left,” Elias said. “We’ll see what happens. I’m sure we’ve got rough patches in store for us. But globally speaking, in my appraisal, I think this organization is in a very healthy spot.”
A successful rebuild could bring an attendance boost for a franchise that has ranked near the bottom of MLB in that regard in recent years.
The blueprint for the Orioles’ rebuild comes, in part, from Elias’ previous club, the Houston Astros. In 2012, the year after the Astros lost 100 games for the first time, their average attendance was 19,849. Following their World Series win in 2017, attendance nearly doubled to 36,797.
Increased attendance would result in more revenue for both the Orioles and their Camden Yards landlord, the Maryland Stadium Authority. The Orioles rank 24th in attendance through the first half of the season at an average of 16,158 per game, according to Baseball Reference, an increase of more than 6,000 over last season’s total. They averaged 16,146 a game, in a stadium that seats 45,971, in 2019, the last full season before the pandemic.
The Orioles’ lease with the stadium authority binds the team to Camden Yards and Baltimore until the end of 2023, but the sides remain in lease talks. Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year allows the stadium authority to borrow up to $1.2 billion for improvements to Oriole Park and the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium, provided the clubs sign long-term leases.
“It appears that the [Orioles’] rebuild is taking shape,” stadium authority executive director Michael Frenz said in a recent board meeting, “and I think that it’s going to coincide with lease extensions and stadium improvements.”
Kleiman now lives in New York City with his wife and 2-year-old son, who is obsessed with his bobbleheads of Ripken and fellow former players Melvin Mora, Nick Markakis, Manny Machado and Brian Roberts; each morning, the toddler points to them, and each night, he says it’s their bedtime, too.
Kleiman hopes to take his son to an Orioles game in a couple of years when the boy might be old enough to remember it.
By then, the Orioles’ rebuild might be even further along.
“I don’t want to say we’re exactly where we want to be yet,” Mountcastle said, “but we’re on the way up.”