Baltimore sports fans are obsessed with history. Perhaps that’s because in the relatively short time this city has had major league sports, it’s had an incredible number of outstanding athletes.
Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Jim Palmer for the Orioles; Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Jim Parker, Art Donovan, John Mackey and Raymond Berry for the Baltimore Colts; and Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden and Ed Reed for the Ravens are among the best in the history of their sports.
Many younger fans here don’t even know that the NBA once had a team in Baltimore, the Bullets, which featured Hall of Famers Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld.
Today’s biggest star is unquestionably Lamar Jackson, whose Ravens have home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs and are favorites to play in the Super Bowl.
Seven years ago, it was a great time to be a Baltimore sports fan. The Orioles had just broken a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons and narrowly lost in the Division Series to the New York Yankees in five games.
The Ravens beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.
It wouldn’t surprise many fans if the Ravens again played the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and the Ravens won.
The last championship brought great joy to Baltimore, and Jackson has brought back that joy, excitement and the promise of a bright future.
The Orioles are on the opposite end of the spectrum, but they have begun a rebuild that they hope will produce long-term results.
Our students of history in the audience also remember the nasty controversy over the Ravens’ opener in the season after the Super Bowl.
The Orioles were scheduled to play at home on that Thursday night, and Major League Baseball wouldn’t move the game to accommodate the Ravens’ home opener.
Instead, the Ravens opened their season at Denver, lost badly and sputtered to an 8-8 season.
On Thursday, September 10, the opening night of the NFL season, the Orioles are scheduled to play the Toronto Blue Jays, at Camden Yards, so unless something changes, the Ravens can’t start their season then. The Orioles are also home on September 13, making a Sunday night game impractical.
The Ravens could have their opener on Monday night, the 14th, when the Orioles are off.
That’s a potentially happy problem for Oriole fans, many of whom are Ravens diehards, too.
Ravens merchandise is quickly selling, and Jackson jerseys have been so hard to come by the team set up a pop-up shop in Baltimore’s Canton Crossing mall to sell them.
Oriole jerseys aren’t nearly as popular.
The Orioles are ending the year with a large number of fans growing impatient after two consecutive seasons of 100-plus losses. One of them regularly writes into this site, asking “When the does the rebuild start?”
It actually began nearly 18 months ago when former general manager Dan Duquette peddled Manny Machado and sold off Brad Brach, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day and Jonathan Schoop.
It has continued under GM Mike Elias, who has brought in a largely new staff to work with him and has slowly constructed a roster, including many names unrecognizable except to the fervent fans.
Elias has repeatedly telegraphed his intentions, refusing to put targets on win totals, and suggesting that the record won’t necessarily improve in 2020.
Just before the 2019 home opener, Elias said: “We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to cobble together a one-year wonder, .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work right and we spent a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process. We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way you need to go about it.”
Fans’ emotions are governed by the team’s record, and they didn’t feel any better when there was a seven-game improvement in 2019 — 108 losses instead of 115. Elias says in a rebuild the move isn’t always linear, and he’s correct.
Another seven-game improvement in 2020 would still mean 101 losses. When there’s an improvement, it’s likely to be a much more radical one, and 2020 isn’t the year for it.
The good news is that the tearing down is nearly complete. The team could certainly trade reliever Mychal Givens, but that’s not likely to be a headline move, and not in the category of the recent trades of starting pitcher Dylan Bundy and infielder Jonathan Villar.
A possible Trey Mancini trade is more complicated. The market for first basemen/outfielders isn’t as robust as it is for starting pitching and middle infielders, and Elias might decide the Orioles are better off keeping their most popular player rather than dealing him.
The 2020 season promises to be a year with more new faces, some placeholders and others who have a chance to be part of the next generation Orioles.
It also promises to be trying for fans who want to see better baseball—now.
How do I answer that fan who keeps asking when does the rebuild begin? It’s under way, and in my mind, it will shift into high gear when I’m no longer writing regularly about Mike Elias but focusing more on the new players the Orioles have on the field.