Opening day signifies hope every year. For the 2023 Orioles, maybe it’s real.
Credit: Baltimore Sun
The line to enter Pickles Pub snaked nearly a block by 1:30 p.m. Friday as fans — despite a last-minute rescheduled Orioles home opener and gray skies — filed into the festivities ahead of the 3 p.m. first pitch. “We’re just getting started,” one fan’s sign read.
There might not be a greater symbol of hope in sports than opening day. The weather has begun to turn, birds are chirping and all 30 MLB teams remain, at least mathematically, in contention for the postseason.
It’s always a bright and boozy occasion in Baltimore. But it’s even a little sweeter when the hometown ballclub has playoff hopes. A buoyant crowd enjoyed the merriment Friday morning and afternoon ahead of the Orioles’ 7-6 home-opening win against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards on a cloudy spring day.
The hope among the 45,017 fans at the game — a sellout and most at a home opener since 2018 — and the many others enjoying the atmosphere outside Camden Yards is that there will be autumn baseball played there this year, too. Or if not this year, soon.
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The Orioles — whose ownership recently settled lawsuits pertaining to the team — remain in litigation with the Washington Nationals, and the club also does not yet have a lease to remain at Camden Yards beyond this year. But for many fans, those issues are of little concern.
Fans worry more, instead, about this team’s pitching staff and expect at least a .500 season. Steve Cromer, an early-arriving fan at Pickles, said the postseason should be the goal.
“You have so much young talent coming through the system. Of course, your hopes should be high as a fan of the Orioles,” he said.
The Star-Spangled Banner is sung before the start of the Orioles’ home opener against the Yankees on Friday at Camden Yards.
The Star-Spangled Banner is sung before the start of the Orioles’ home opener against the Yankees on Friday at Camden Yards. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
The Orioles last made the postseason in 2016, and in the five-year span from 2017 to 2021, the team won just 36% of its games, never sniffing the playoffs. Last year’s squad was expected to be dismal, too, as the organization continued its yearslong rebuild. However, the Orioles surprisingly challenged for a playoff spot, and many figure the 2023 group, with young stars such as catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, can pick up where they left off.
For fans, that means hope.
Brent Kline — a 26-year-old Baltimore native and fan who has played independent league professional baseball — and Faith Hildebran wore Rutschman and Henderson jerseys, respectively, Friday at Pickles ahead of the game.
“Orioles baseball is very exciting to watch now,” Kline said.
Down the road, the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum hosted a block party. Michael Gibbons, the museum’s executive director, said there has been increased interest in their annual event; last year, the event drew about 400, while Gibbons had to cap the event at 550 this season.
With the exception of four years he served in the Navy in the early 1970s, Gibbons has been to every Orioles opening day since the team came to town in 1954.
“Opening day is the best day of the sporting year,” he said.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, right, stands with his daughter, Mia, as they get ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Orioles’ home opener Friday at Camden Yards.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, right, stands with his daughter, Mia, as they get ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Orioles’ home opener Friday at Camden Yards. (Karl Merton Ferron)
Befitting an opening day full of promise, the owner’s box was loaded with dignitaries — including elected officials and media luminaries. The VIPs dined on barbecue, sliders, hot dogs, fruit salad and various desserts. Orioles Chairman and CEO John Angelos, joined by his wife Margaret, greeted guests as they arrived.
In a season with high expectations, Camden Yards seemed more than ever to be a place to be seen.
“There’s so much energy and excitement. There hasn’t been any disappointment yet,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone.
The Democrat lives in Montgomery County but grew up in Adams County, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border. Seeing the stadium so full reminded Trone of some of the club’s best days.
“We grew up all our lives rooting for the Orioles. Those are the days we had the four 20-game winners: [Mike] Cuellar, [Pat] Dobson, [Dave] McNally and [Jim] Palmer,” the congressman said.
Joining Trone in the suite was Mayor Brandon Scott, wearing a bright orange sweatsuit emblazoned with “Baltimore O’s,” and matching orange pants.
“He’s killing it, man,” Trone said when he saw Scott’s attire.
“Every year is special, but with this young team coming together, I’m predicting for us to go to the playoffs this year,” the mayor said. “Playing the hated New York ‘Spankees’ makes it even better.”
Sportsbooks and statistical models project the Orioles to regress this season, predicting a losing record. But those expectations are mostly not mirrored in Baltimore. Despite the Orioles’ opening day payroll ($60.8 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts) ranking the second-lowest in MLB, the city pines for the postseason.
On Rutschman’s commute to the ballpark Friday, a fan pulled up next to him in their car. The fan, wearing a Rutschman jersey, smiled and waved at him.
“That got me excited,” Rutschman said before the game. “I’m ready to go today. I think everyone’s excited.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has been measured in his expectations for the big league club since he began the rebuild after being hired in late 2018. But he’s said this year’s team has a “good shot at the playoffs.”
After narrowly missing out last year, the clubhouse hopes for improvement this season, too.
“I know a lot of guys wanted to be there,” backup outfielder Ryan McKenna said of the postseason, “so it’s still close to their hearts of wanting to succeed and push through those last couple of weeks, making it into the playoffs and earning a spot there. It’s definitely on the forefront of all of our minds.”
Cooper Sunshine, 17, stands with his father Doug Sunshine of Potomac and Mike Michocki of Bel Air during batting practice before the Orioles’ home opener Friday at Camden Yards.
Cooper Sunshine, 17, stands with his father Doug Sunshine of Potomac and Mike Michocki of Bel Air during batting practice before the Orioles’ home opener Friday at Camden Yards. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
Friday figured to be a particularly busy day in downtown Baltimore as there were expected to be at least 40,000 people at the ballgame and 14,000 in the evening at the grand reopening event — a Bruce Springsteen show — at CFG Bank Arena.
Opening day had been scheduled for Thursday, but forecasts of thunderstorms postponed it until Friday, causing the events to overlap. The change of plans didn’t dampen Friday’s mood, nor did the unsightly off-the-field happenings of the past several months.
The two sons of ailing Orioles owner Peter Angelos, 93, spent the second half of 2022 engaged in a messy legal battle, filing lawsuits against one another. That feud was settled in early February and John Angelos, the older son, remains the team’s CEO and Chairman.
However, questions cloud the club’s future. The Orioles have been under the same lease with the state of Maryland, which owns Oriole Park, since 1992, but that lease will expire at the end of this year. Angelos and Gov. Wes Moore — who wore an Orioles jersey as he embraced Angelos, threw out Friday’s ceremonial first pitch and was seen at Pickles pouring drinks for fans before the game — have assured fans that the parties will come to an agreement, but the team is still formally untethered to Baltimore beyond 2023.
Last month, Moore and Angelos visited Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, to get a glimpse of what might come next at Camden Yards. The ballpark, which opened in 2017 within an entertainment district known as The Battery, has been viewed by many as a prototype for the future of baseball stadiums.
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“I look back at the way this park was able to transform ballparks 30 years ago … the thing that I’m excited about when I look at this next generation, or next era, is we want to do the same thing, but it’s not just about the ballpark,” Moore said during an in-game interview Friday from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network broadcast booth. “We want to be able to transform a community, transform a neighborhood, transform how people walk, how people move. How you turn something into a destination. … I want us to be really thoughtful about what this place could actually look like.”
Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander is greeted as he takes the field on the orange carpet before Friday’s home opener at Camden Yards.
Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander is greeted as he takes the field on the orange carpet before Friday’s home opener at Camden Yards. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
Later this month, the highest court in New York will rule in the long-standing dispute between the Orioles and the Washington Nationals regarding $100 million in Mid-Atlantic Sports Network revenue. It’s a critical juncture in the decadelong fight, important enough for the City of Baltimore to recently file an amicus brief in support of the Orioles for the first time in the saga.
What’s more, the Orioles have not signed any of their young stars, like Rutschman or Henderson, to long-term contracts, unlike some up-and-coming teams.
But those topics were hardly on the minds of the spirited crowd Friday. Litigation, the lease and long-term contracts be darned — it was opening day.
Manager Brandon Hyde said that walking around the city Thursday, he noticed more people approaching him “in a positive way” about the Orioles’ prospects. Jared Johnson, a season-ticket holder, arrived at Pickles at 8 a.m. and though he aspired for the playoffs this year, he said he wouldn’t be upset if this wasn’t yet the year. The “rebuild is actually working,” he said.
Elsewhere at Pickles, it was a familiar scene of back slaps, hugs and annual exchanges of “happy new year!” Only this year, there was a touch more hope.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.