It’s June and the Orioles are in first place. Baltimore would feel a lot better about this fact if it weren’t appended by about three footnotes. It’s only been June for 12 hours.
And that first-place position? A dead tie with Tampa Bay and everyone else in the AL East within a 3-game striking distance. In fact, in another twelve hours, after the Orioles finish the opening game of a series in Tampa, the Birds could be in second place. The final footnote to the mind-boggling first place in June statement is that the O’s have lost five in a row and eight of their last ten. The wheels certainly aren’t off the wagon by any means, but for the first time in this hopeful 2012 season, they are wobbling.
Is the cause for panic legitimate, or is this just the residue of a 14-year old culture of losing expectations? Has the culture of the team and around it changed enough to weather their precarious position?
“Culture shift” is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit in business and in sports. Shifts in a club’s culture can ebb and flow over long periods of time (the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers come to mind), or in short, frenetic blasts (as we saw in Tampa in 2008 and Boston in 2004). They can happen organically, with a few random factors bouncing in a team’s favor and the right people finding cohesion at the right time. But more often then not, they happen intentionally. It’s a decision, from the top down, that “things are going to be different around here.”
The 2012 Orioles are an example of an intentional culture shift with some fortunate climatic factors in play. It wasn’t the design of the 2011 version of the team that found itself well out of contention in September. They wanted to compete for a pennant, like every Oriole club before them. But the baseball gods grooved the team a fastball by setting up an opportunity for Baltimore to knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs on that fateful night of September 28, 2011. Every revolution needs a spark, and while certainly not in the blueprint for 2011, being able to play spoiler and feel meaningful (if not “winning”) baseball for a fleeting moment was a jolt to a dormant club’s nervous system.
Buck Showalter’s stewardship of the team can not be overlooked as a key driver of any positive changes in team atmosphere. Baseball managers are infamously debated as being either A) statistically insignificant to games won and a lost, or B) marginally influential to games won and lost. That may be true on paper, and even if Jack McKeon says he didn’t do much to help the Marlins win the World Series in 2003, it’s clear managers do serve a key role in determining club culture.
Showalter’s attitude and handling of players and media has not only been a welcome change on Eutaw St., but not to diminish his achievements, he is a baseball person that baseball fans feel comfortable with. He’s a known commodity, a managerial name that fans can hang their hat on. Why is this important? Because for the next two decades, whenever the Orioles employ a lesser-known manager, there will forever be rumblings about club heroes like Cal Ripken and Rick Dempsey looming in the wings to lead the team. Whether either of those men (most likely Dempsey more so than Ripken) would have interest in actually being the manager is another matter entirely. With a secure and proven skipper, there’s no need for fans to hold out hope that bringing in a club legend would magically fix the team’s woes.
Aesthetics seem trivial to some, but they do tend to be indicators for what direction an organization wants to go in and how they identify themselves. he return to prominence of the “Cartoon Bird” on the hats and less recently the long-opined omission of “Baltimore” on the road jerseys has reinvigorated casual interest in the team and given a sense of tradition for fans to hold on to. Granted, the differences in Oriole uniforms and logos over the years haven’t wavered much in the grand scheme of things. It’s always been either one version or another of the “cartoon” or “ornithological” bird, and the color palettes remain unchanged.
The ballpark itself, now 20 years old, got its most significant visual alterations this off-season. Anyone who’s ever moved offices, even it’s lateral, can attest to how it changes the way you approach and think about your work. Aesthetic changes are important in sports, if for no other reason than to delineate in our memories the bad years from the good. The Tampa Bay “Devil Rays” will be remembered as a bad expansion team that had Wade Boggs. The Tampa Bay “Rays” are baseball savants with great pitching and exciting position players that get them in the postseason. These things matter, even if they technically do not.
The most obvious way to change a culture is to bring in new people or keep the ones that could contribute to a new, better way of doing things. The refrain from fans and commentators for decades, even when the team underwent spells of success, was that they couldn’t keep anyone good around. Sun columnists would compile All-Star teams made up of players who had either departed Baltimore for more money, more wins, or simply slip through the cracks of talent evaluation. Now, with the long-term signing of Adam Jones, the Orioles have not only proven they can keep talent in-house, but that Baltimore might not be such a bad place for free agents to come win ballgames.
Modern baseball, however, has shown that it’s even more important to develop talent organizationally than through free agency. Some would argue that the Rays did so simply by losing consistently in their early days and stockpiling draft picks. There may be some truth to that, but it’s not a hard and fast formula that high draft picks translates to wins down the road. Billy Rowell, Adam Loewen, Wade Townsend, Brandon Snyder and Chris Smith have all been 1st-round whiffs for the club in the last ten drafts. Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters have certainly panned out as highly-touted selections, with some incomplete grades (Brian Matusz and Matthew Hobgood) and a couple budding stars (Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado).
The amateur draft is the nearest thing pro sports has to an absolute crapshoot, but the sentiment around hot prospects has been one of expecting much and seeing little for years. Perhaps its improved scouting and development, or perhaps it’s simply the volume of top picks finally tilting in the team’s favor, but for once the future looks like it has a genuine sheen to it.
It’s so early in the season still that while a few AL teams are probably out of it (Minnesota, Seattle, Kansas City and Oakland come to mind), nobody is really “in it” by any means. Everyone in the AL East is over .500, and all those teams but Baltimore and Toronto have a real expectation to be in the postseason year in and year out. It’s a cruel game of musical chairs set that the Rays simply stopped refusing to accept in 2008. A shift in culture in Baltimore could mean that the names on the back of those chairs are not as permanent as the perennial winners think they are.
With seemingly unsustainable pitching efforts, mounting injuries to the reliable bats in the lineup and a long season still ahead, the conditioned pessimism around the fan base is starting to grumble, acknowledging that four months is plenty of time to lose a lot of ballgames. The team has the same owner and there is no sign of that changing in the near future. Much is the same as it ever was at Camden Yards, some good and some bad. But maybe what started September 28, 2011 is part of a narrative that does result in things truly being different in the standings, where right now, it matters the most.
Dave Gilmore is a columnist and editor for Baltimore Sports Report. He also writes for b. You can reach him via Twitter at @dave_gilmore.