Caleb Ellison went to Camden Yards in August, sporting an Orioles Hawaiian shirt, a black-and-orange baseball cap and, notably, nothing protecting his face.
He was completely satisfied to be seen.
It had been 5 years since Ellison wore a paper bag over his head to some video games through the 2018 season as he and the Orioles endured a franchise-worst 115 losses. A standard trope in sports activities, Ellison wore the cut-out brown bag — captured by a Baltimore Sun photographer throughout one September loss — to represent his embarrassment. The Orioles had been terrible. And they had been going to be terrible. For Ellison, then a 16-year-old scholar at Old Mill High School in Millersville, that point felt “hopeless.”
“[I’d] show up to the Yard completely normal and then as soon as the score became 9-3 or whatever, I’d put it on, you know, hide the shame,” he mentioned.
There’s been no want to cover this yr. The Orioles, anticipated to complete beneath .500 and out of the playoffs by sportsbooks and statistical projections, have been one of the best story in baseball. Young, homegrown stars like Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez — who climbed the minor league ladder whereas the MLB workforce struggled lately — have joined with little-pursued veteran gamers to type an undaunted, constant group.
The Orioles haven’t been swept since May 2022, a streak of 91 straight sweep-less collection that marks the longest streak in MLB since World War II. They gained 101 video games for the primary time since 1979. And they’ve executed all of it after followers suffered via years of despair.
“It’s been awesome,” Ellison mentioned.
Of all of the joyous moments that the 2023 season has equipped, none topped Thursday because the Orioles clinched an American League East title for the primary time since 2014 with a 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox. In doing so, they earned a bye within the first spherical of the MLB playoffs and can start the AL Division collection at dwelling on Saturday.
On that day, the workforce’s first postseason sport since 2016, there might be no brown-bag helmets at Oriole Park. Instead, followers might be desperate to root for a franchise that has firmly put its five-year rebuild within the rearview and has solely the fruits of that labor forward of it.
The return of the magic
During the rebuild — the years when the Orioles fielded mediocre rosters at finest and redirected assets towards creating the longer term — the baseball yr felt lengthy. There was a 19-game dropping streak. Meager attendance. Games missing any significance, besides perhaps for the opponents, by August.
But this season has as a substitute felt recent, a giddy whirlwind of walk-off wins, unlikely heroes and one-time prospects blooming into bona fide stars.
It has returned the baseball buzz to Baltimore, which has seen higher attendance at Oriole Park than any yr since 2017.
When Orioles pitcher Kyle Gibson picked up a espresso at Morning Mugs in Federal Hill earlier than a sport final week, he discovered written on his cup: “Let’s Go O’s.”
“I think this city is getting pretty excited,” Gibson mentioned of the postseason.
“Orioles Magic,” that catchy 1980 ballad about dramatic wins through the days of supervisor Earl Weaver and the three-run homer, has by no means left Baltimore. But the music rings more true when the Orioles are profitable.
“Certainly, the magic of the Orioles is back,” in keeping with the person who composed the music himself, Walt Woodward. “In a lot of ways, what’s going on now reminds me of what was happening back at the end of the ‘70s. It’s sort of like the little engine that could.”
Woodward, who was born in Austria to a U.S. army spy and grew up in North Carolina and Florida, wrote nation music songs in Nashville and, later, promoting jingles in Ohio. In the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, although, he carved out a selected area of interest: MLB groups, together with the Orioles, employed him to create songs about their membership. He wrote “Orioles Magic” in about an hour.
In the many years since, Woodward pivoted careers, acquired a doctorate in historical past, grew to become a professor and served because the Connecticut state historian. For the majority of that point, “Orioles Magic” has stayed part of Baltimore’s baseball cloth and, in all probability greater than the rest Woodward wrote, together with nation songs like “Marty Gray” sung by Billie Jo Spears, has endured.
“That it has this staying power makes me really happy,” he informed The Baltimore Sun.
At the time, he was instructed to compose a music capturing “when the team does the extraordinary, when they do the thing you can’t do,” and this yr’s Orioles have embodied that spirit.
Woodward had by no means made it to a sport at Camden Yards, however he’d wish to. Like so many others have this season, he’d wish to expertise the magic himself.
For the followers who tolerated the rebuilding seasons — which included essentially the most losses in Major League Baseball from 2017 to 2021 — this season has been the early-arriving gentle on the finish of the tunnel.
Michele Sexton of Cecil County attended video games through the lean years, when fielding a aggressive workforce felt eons away. The worst half was watching an opposing participant pitch a gem or make an ideal defensive play and realizing, “Well, that used to be an Oriole. He used to play for us.”
It’s at all times an excellent day on the ballpark, she likes to say, even then. But it’s extra thrilling when the Orioles are profitable.
“Or when you have a hope of winning,” she mentioned. “It’s OK if they don’t win, but when you go to the stadium knowing you’re gonna feel like you got kicked when you leave, you don’t really wanna go.”
As attendance and curiosity elevated this season, followers loyal all through have poked enjoyable at these now on board.
“We always joke about how everyone’s coming in, quote-unquote bandwagon fans, and it’s like … Where were you when Pat Valaika was our starting shortstop?” Ellison mentioned.
In his 1990 baseball e-book “Men At Work,” George F. Will mentioned “there are few, if any, better baseball towns than Baltimore.” And whereas give attention to the sport appeared to wane because the Orioles not too long ago mounted 100-loss seasons, Baltimore’s adoration has been woke up this yr.
When reliever Danny Coulombe was traded to the Orioles in March, one among his closest associates, Baltimore native and former professional pitcher Mike Thomas, informed him that Baltimore was a “baseball city, not a football city.”
“If you guys start winning,” Coulombe recalled Thomas telling him, “it’ll come.”
Clarence “Fancy Clancy” Haskett, a beer vendor veteran of 49 Orioles seasons and Camden Yards movie star, has observed that arrival. Fans are extra desperate to put on workforce gear this season and are extra captivated by the sport, he mentioned. When the Orioles are down — not like in previous years, when that every one however assured a loss — followers anticipate a comeback.
“Orioles Magic is back,” he mentioned.
Questions concerning the workforce’s future do linger. Its younger stars are with out long-term contracts and the membership has not but formally signed a lease to stay at state-owned Camden Yards past this season, regardless of an in-game announcement final week that appeared to counsel in any other case. (Instead, the workforce has agreed to a “memorandum of understanding,” which is nonbinding, with the state.)
But the one query remaining for the 2023 baseball season is how far these Orioles can go.
Brandon Crawford, an Orioles fan from Carroll County, wore a paper bag over his head to a number of video games in 2010 and 2011, when the Orioles had been within the midst of 14 straight beneath .500 seasons. A teen on the time, Crawford mentioned he “didn’t know anything other than losing.”
Frustrated that the workforce was not solely dropping, however not constructing towards sustainable success, he sported the brown bag to focus on the exasperation of being an Orioles fan. That bag was destroyed throughout a downpour on the finish of the 2011 season, which was good timing — the Orioles went on to notch three playoff appearances within the subsequent 5 seasons. But in Crawford’s estimation, the well being of the membership is even higher in the present day.
“The time has come. I’m hoping I get to see the Orioles finally win a World Series,” he mentioned. “I was born in 1995 and all I’ve known up until a few years [ago] is 90, 100-loss seasons. I’m ready to witness raising a World Series trophy.”
Crawford attended Thursday evening’s AL East clincher as Baltimore — with its carefree expertise, its uplifting season, its devoted fan base — donned the division crown.
Instead of a brown bag obscuring his face, he proudly smiled.