Dr. Jon Simon was in his office late on a summer afternoon. He was there to discuss what an MRI revealed about a rotator cuff injury to a patient whose best pitching days were with a Wiffle Ball when the Orioles were winning four American League pennants and two World Series in a six-year period. Then the Orioles traded their best player to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Frank Robinson was 10 years older than Manny Machado when he went to Los Angeles, but his six years in Baltimore marked the best of times for the Orioles.
These might not be the worst of times, but the first half was painful to watch — with or without a rotator cuff injury. It’s why Dr. Simon understood the Machado trade and why the Orioles didn’t want to risk injury by sending him back on the field after a rain delay in their final game before the All-Star break. When Dr. Simon heard that Machado and manager Buck Showalter shared a personal moment when they realized Machado’s Oriole career was about to end, he understood that, too.
“You forget that these guys are human,” Dr. Simon said. “They’re such amazing athletes that you sometimes think of them as machines. But I heard an interview with Zach Britton about the possibility of being traded. And he talked about this being the only franchise he has known, where he has grown up as a man and a pitcher. You think that they might want to leave a team that is losing so much, but this is their home.”
It’s also home to a fan base that has been calling for a new direction. The 69 first-half losses, however, aren’t the most alarming thing: It has been the loss of hope that anything will change. That no longer seems to be the case with the trade of Machado and the admission by executive vice president Dan Duquette that it marks the beginning of an organizational rebuild.
“I’m looking forward to going to more games in the second half,” Dr. Simon said. “I want to see players like Cedric Mullins.”
It’s what Mullins and players such as Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey represent — the promise of the future. There isn’t likely to be another Machado among them, but baseball has always been about finding the next talent. Would Don Baylor take the place of Frank Robinson? Bobby Grich of Dave Johnson? Doug DeCinces of Brooks Robinson? Machado of Cal Ripken if he had remained at short and with the Orioles?
Comparisons are inevitable, even though the game has changed with its obsession of launch angles and exit velocities. Certain statistics still enable us to measure the old with the new, but numbers don’t develop relationships. Machado brought brilliance to what he did — Showalter said he played with imagination — but he also brought joy … a kid playing a kid’s game. It was fun to watch his friendship with second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and how they pushed each other. Machado’s personality was as big as his play at times, and the number of Machado jerseys in the stands reflected that.
One fan wrote that Machado gave him hope. His departure could be the first step toward a renewed hope for the franchise — an acknowledgement that it’s time to rethink how to build a competitive team from the ground up. In effect, it’s the Orioles’ version of examining the results of an overdue MRI. And it has revealed that there is more than just an injured rotator cuff.
Editor’s Note: I couldn’t bring myself to pull for pitcher Doyle Alexander during his four seasons with the Orioles, even though that’s silly. He was the primary player the Orioles got in return for Frank Robinson, who happened to be my favorite. Fans can be fickle, and I wasn’t any different. I still cared about the team, which continued to have an abundance of talent. Before Frank’s last Oriole season in 1971, Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated, “By consensus, the Orioles are not only the best team, but the best organization—with the best players, the best manager, the best system, the best front office, the best morale and, definitely, the best chances….” The Orioles had players such as Baylor, Grich, DeCinces, Merv Rettenmund and Al Bumbry waiting their turn in the farm system. From 1964 through 1983, the “Oriole Way” resulted in at least 90 victories 16 times, and only one losing season—the best record in baseball. The Orioles are trying to find their way again.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.