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Mudville: April 18, 2024 10:21 am PDT

How ‘Bout Them O’s?

BY DEB SEYMOUR

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was one of the first “new” ballparks built by a Major League Baseball team, and it inspired the designs of a lot of the newer parks built since. The intentional backdrop of the red brick warehouse only helps reinforce the park’s traditional look – that of the Baltimore brick you see throughout the city in its row houses, street pavements, and bar and restaurant interiors.

And if you’ve lived in Baltimore for even a short while, you’re well aware that Baltimoreans love their Orioles (and their NFL Ravens, who occupy M&T Bank Stadium across the boulevard from Camden Yards). In the six-year stint during which I lived walking distance from Camden Yards, the “Let’s Go O’s” slogan was everywhere.

There is no NBA team in Baltimore; there is no NHL team in Baltimore; there is no MLS team in Baltimore. Some of the “smaller” cities to host a MLB team have at least one other major league team in addition to their baseball team, and for many it’s an NFL team. But Milwaukee, for example, has the NBA Bucks; Tampa-St. Petersburg has the NHL Lightning; and Minneapolis-St. Paul has the NBA Timberwolves, the NHL Wild, and the MLS Minnesota United FC.

Not so in Baltimore’s case. And yet it‘s nonetheless a sports town as much as any other.

During some of the leaner years in recent decades for the Orioles, Camden Yards would still sell out every opening day. This is a city with a long tradition of baseball, preceding the stadium in which its MLB team now plays. Baltimore is the birthplace of Babe Ruth, and was home to the Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive games played streak that broke Lou Gehrig’s streak.

It was also home to the careers (or to the bulk of the careers) of many Hall of Famers, from Frank Robinson to Jim Palmer to Eddie Murray to Roberto Alomar to Mike Mussina, as well as a number of others.

During successful years for the Orioles, Camden Yards has had its share of sellouts. If you visit or live in Baltimore, there are three significant color combinations you will see virtually everywhere: the yellow, black, and red of the Maryland state flag, the purple and black of the Baltimore Ravens, and the orange and black of the Baltimore Orioles.

There are also delicious food aromas only associated with the ballpark at Camden Yards. You cannot miss Boog’s Barbeque (owned and named by former Oriole Boog Powell), right on Eutaw Street, as you walk through the main gates and enter the park.

The long line for Boog’s delicious meats, the plume of smoke arising from its vendor stand, and the distinctive scents of its offerings are all hallmarks of this particular stadium. Personally, I’m partial to the Baltimore pit beef you’ll also find sold in various neighborhoods surrounding the ballpark; but Boog’s is legendary.

The Boog's BBQ truck before the start of the Baltimore Orioles home opener against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 07, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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So, how about them O’s? They’re having quite the season; and this year’s brash, upstart Orioles team is showing everyone in the majors there is value in both youth and in well coached, novel talent.

Of course, due to the number of years the Orioles were a last place team in the AL East, they’ve had ample opportunity to select amongst the highest draft picks – many of whom have very good chances of succeeding in the majors.

But it takes more than just careful drafting to build a winner. Young talent needs to be cultivated; and according to MLB Pipeline, as a group, the Orioles’ seven minor league affiliates rank number one among MLB farm systems in 2023.

In fact, as of spring 2023, the Orioles retained the top spot in the MLB Pipeline Farm System Rankings for the fourth consecutive time, between preseason and midseason lists.

As MLB Pipeline reporters described the Orioles’ farm system in March 2023, “The baseball world caught sight of what’s coming to Charm City (Baltimore’s self-chosen nickname) last year, when Adley Rutschman became AL Rookie of the Year runner-up and new No. 1 overall prospect Gunnar Henderson debuted in August. The result: a 31-win increase over 2021. There’s lots more where those two came from as the club attempts to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016.”

And indeed, now at the end of July, the O’s seem poised to do just that.

Adley Rutschman #35 and Gunnar Henderson #2 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrate the team's 4-0 win over the Cleveland Guardians in Henderson's Major League debut at Progressive Field on August 31, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

The Orioles had a number of prospects ranked in the spring by MLB Pipeline in the Top 100: Gunnar Henderson, SS/3B (No. 1); Grayson Rodriguez, RHP (No. 7); Jackson Holliday, SS (No. 12); Colton Cowser, OF (No. 40); Jordan Westburg, INF (No. 74); Heston Kjerstad, OF (No. 80); DL Hall, LHP (No. 97); and Joey Ortiz, SS/2B (No. 99).

Gunnar Henderson can now technically be scratched off the prospect list, as he’s been in the majors for a bit. Grayson Rodriguez has been brought up to the majors, as well. But MLB Pipeline assures us there are many other prospects in the Oriole farm system who could move up into the Top 100 and take their places very soon.

A little more than four years after executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took the reins in Charm City, promising to rebuild the club into a winner through smart drafting and player development, the future in Baltimore is officially now.

*****

The Orioles do not have the largest payroll in the majors. In fact, theirs is the smallest payroll in their own division, a division they’ll probably be battling to lead for the rest of the season with its next lowest payroll team, the Tampa Bay Rays.

As we’ve written elsewhere at BallNine, the days of “buying a World Series” are over. That doesn’t mean owners shouldn’t try to improve their teams at the trade deadline; but it does mean perennial big spenders don’t necessarily convert anymore to perennial championship winners.

The Orioles are smart and motivated, and they are very busy showcasing their pipeline of talent despite occupying a seat in what most would call the toughest division in the league. Even last season, the beginnings of that potential were visible.

Aaron Hicks #34 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with Anthony Santander #25 after scoring the go-ahead run in the tenth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 20, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. The Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

This year, however, the O’s have really turned it on. Their roster is in the middle of the pack in terms of average age, signifying they aren’t so young that they’re still learning how to play at the major league level, while at the same time they aren’t so old that they can’t dash down to first base with the best of them.

Their coaching staff isn’t replete with the familiar names and faces you’ve seen over the years with multiple other teams. But they sure seem effective at getting the most out of their players.

With Brandon Hyde as manager, the coaching staff includes Fredi Gonzalez as bench coach, Anthony Sanders as first base coach, Tony Mansolino as third base coach, Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte as co-hitting coaches/instructors, Chris Holt as the main pitching coach, and Darren Holmes as assistant pitching coach. There are, of course, other coaches on the staff as well – but you get a sense from all the names that the Orioles are after quality, and not fame and high profiles, in making their coaching hires.

As of Monday, the Orioles were in first place in the AL East with a 61-38 record, two games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. Four Orioles were All-Stars this year: Adley Rutschman, Austin Hays, Felix Bautista, and Yenier Cano. Cedric Mullins, though not a 2023 All-Star, was a bright spot for this team even prior to 2023, and heralded what the O’s might become over the past couple of years.

There’s a wealth of talent and potential at Camden Yards, and the other teams in the American League East might have to deal with a worthy contender in Baltimore for years to come. So keep an eye on this developing team – and meanwhile, you might want to consider visiting Baltimore for more than just the crab cakes and Fort McHenry.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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