Say what you want about Major League Baseball’s new Wild Card format (and at this point, just about everything has been said), but at the very least, it’s made the push toward the postseason significantly more exciting than ever have been before. Regardless of which teams get the final two splayoff pots, in 2012 there were more teams, playing more meaningful games later into the season than ever before. They say “there’s no such thing as bad PR” and that has certainly been the case for Major League Baseball in this year.
With that said, it’s also safe to assume that one of the teams which has benefited most from the new format is the Baltimore Orioles. With the confidence of having an extra playoff spot to play for, the Orioles have been white-hot in September, going 19-9 and on Sunday night, clinched their first playoff spot in 15 years.
But as they head into their first postseason since 1997, what do we really know about Baltimore? The answer is “Not nearly enough” which is why on Monday I decided to track down the biggest Orioles fan I know… my stepdad, Matt. Matt has been a partial-season ticket holder with the Orioles, driving into town for 13 games a year despite living nearly six hours away in Connecticut, and despite the fact that, well, the team was terrible. It’s a commitment only the biggest of diehards would’ve made, yet Matt has made it for the last four years.
Either way Matt has seen the O’s through the bad times, and now it’s back to the good. From the influence of manager Buck Showalter, to the comparisons of the Orioles to the movie “Major League” here’s everything you need to know about Baltimore heading into the playoffs.
I want to start with this: Everyone claims to be a “fan,” but in your case, you put your money where your mouth is, and bought a 13-game partial season ticket package when the Orioles were really bad. Take me through that thought process, because that’s not a commitment most fans would make, especially when the team is bad and especially when you live so far away.
Well I made the decision when the Orioles themselves decided to put their money where their mouth was as far as player development. They had drafted Matt Wieters, had given him a ton of money, and I started to think ‘They still have Nick Markakis whose a good player, they’ve still got Brian Roberts whose a good player and they got some young kids coming up who are going to be good players. I want to get back in on the ground floor, because when they start to get good, in that ballpark, it will be years before you get a season ticket.’ If I didn’t do it then, I would’ve waited for years to get in again, like my friends did in the early 90’s.
So I figured they had an exciting young team, a nice ballpark, and I love the team, so why not? I’ve been doing it for four years now.
You talk about the Orioles not putting their money where their mouth was. Now when I was young, they were a team which spent a lot of money and didn’t really develop players, and I guess it led to a big fraction between the ownership and fan-base. A lot of people felt like owner Peter Angelos wasn’t putting the resources back into the ball-club, right?
The Angelos family is well-regarded in Baltimore for being very charitable, but it’s (Baltimore) not a really good organization for developing talent. So eventually there became this reputation that maybe Angelos bought the team for his kids so they could run it like a rotisserie team; they went through a lot of GM’s, a lot of managers, sometimes they would try to build within, sometimes they’d just go spend money like the Yankees did…
So there was no plan, you’d say?
Yeah, there was no plan and it showed.
You had a product out there that wasn’t good, the managers weren’t allowed to pick their own staff and what you saw was that the product wasn’t only not good, but they didn’t respect the sport of baseball either. They (the players) had no respect for the managers, no accountability and this went on for year after year after year.
And to get back to one of your other points, as bad as those years were, you still said “I want to get back in now, because if I don’t, I’ll never be able to get tickets.”
Do you think people nationally truly understand how dedicated the Baltimore community and their fans are? Because I’ve written this, but I feel like the fans in Baltimore care just as much as those in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, places that are considered “baseball cities,” but I don’t feel like they get that national respect. That was my biggest takeaway from my first trip to Camden Yards, “These people do care,” even in seasons where the team lost 100 games.
Baltimore has always been known as a “football town” but there are still 15 or 20 thousand diehard fans year-in and year-out with the Orioles.
But what was focused on this year was that when they took three out of four from the White Sox on a getaway day, there were only 10 or 12 thousand fans there, and people noticed. What they don’t know is that there are a lot of young people who support the team, a lot of young families who travel up to take in a few games a year, and that they’ve bled orange and black for years and years.
So there really is a perception down there that there is a devoted fan-base. And what we saw over the last few weekends this season was that when the Red Sox and Yankees came in there, there was a sea of orange with the Orioles fans finally drowning out the fans of the other teams.
It’s something we haven’t seen in a while. There was a lot of electricity in there. A lot of people said they haven’t seen that much electricity since the early ‘90’s
So in terms of baseball, the Orioles have had early season success in previous seasons. But was there a point this year where you said to yourself, “Ok, this team is different” than years past?
The first third of the season they went on these long, difficult road trips. Everybody wondered ‘How are they going to do?’ and they’d come back 6-4 or 9-5, whatever. But they were winning.
What you started to see is that nothing really fazed these guys. They played really well on the road, they were really tough, played with a quiet confidence, like they were sick of losing and had had enough of it. In late May it really seemed like there was something special about the team, and even in June when they started struggling, they stayed calm and there wasn’t a lot of bickering going on.
After the All-Star break that’s when they really began to turn it on.
You said ‘Nothing fazed them.’ Is that an effect of Buck Showalter?
Yeah, I really think it is.
He’s been really calm this year, very focused on the team, on trusting guys. And the team he has has a good understanding of the “team concept.” They weren’t in it for themselves. I think that’s really what he’s brought, is accountability and focusing in on the team aspect.
Now this isn’t a signature team that’s on TV or a lot, or that people have probably watched much of this year. So going forward into the playoffs, tell people who know nothing about the team, a little about what’s made them so successful this year.
First of all, Matt Wieters is probably the most complete catcher in the game. He has a lot of power, he drives in a lot of runs, but defensively he’s there too. He has a great release, throws out a lot of runners and knows how to call a game.
Secondly, the bullpen is excellent. If the team has a lead going into the sixth inning, they have confidence they’re going to win. The starters aren’t panicking, and are just really focused on what they have to do to have the lead, because going into the seventh, eighth and ninth they have relievers who are going to hold the lead.
The third thing that I’ve noticed is how many people they’ve called up from the minor leagues who have come in and played a role. Nate McClouth has come in to solidify the outfield after injuries. They’ve brought in Manny Machado who is 19-years-old to play third base which isn’t his natural position, and he’s done a great job of it. They told him ‘We don’t care if you hit, we just want you to field the position’ and tried to make him feel really comfortable.
So really, there’s been a lot of support for these guys, they’ve all known what their role is and done a good job with it.
It’s funny, I’ve heard from many people that this team is a lot like the Cleveland Indians in the movie ‘Major League.’ They’re a bunch of rag-tag guys who play hard for each and don’t care about stats. Watching them every night, have you seen that?
Yeah, there’s a lot of truth to it.
One of the things the GM saw was that there wasn’t a lot of depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues, so he went out and brought in that depth. And the message is clear that if you play well, you’re going to have an opportunity to come in and play. And they’ve done that.
So Nate McClouth, he got released by Atlanta, came in, tore up Triple A, they brought him up. Manny Machado had a good stretch in Double A, they brought him up. They told Mark Reynolds he wasn’t cutting it at third base, moved him over to first and he’s done a great job. They brought over a Taiwanese pitcher who played in Japan who nobody knew anything about (Wei-Yin Chen) and he pitches with a lot of poise. They’ve got a closer who wants to be a starter, but he’s saved 50 games.
Nothing seems to faze them.
The only other question I have is simple: We don’t yet whether this team will win the division or the Wild Card, and obviously if it’s the Wild Card, in a one-game situation anything can happen. But in the “big picture” of the playoffs, how do you like this team matching up with everyone?
You know, they don’t hit as well as other teams, they don’t get on base as well as other teams, they do hit a lot of home runs, but to do well in the playoffs, I think it’ll be because of their bullpen. I think the message that Showalter is going to send is “Play a 27 outs a game. Keep it simple, don’t let the pressure get to you and you’ll be ok.”
If they do that, they’ll be ok.
Anything else that we’ve missed?
Well, you know, sometimes you hear that chemistry is overrated it’s all based on talent. It isn’t.
Well, chemistry here is so important. They let go of a lot of trouble makers, guys who were “me, me, me” guys and replaced them with people who know how to be part of a team. The ownership is starting to get it, and I think as long as they have the GM and Buck Showalter there, they’re going to be fine.
It’s going to be really fun to watch.
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