Supporting a team for several decades helps you develop immense confidence about your sense for where they’re headed and what they can accomplish when the season rolls around, but nothing could have prepared 33-year-old Colin Lyman for the 2023 Baltimore Orioles.
The Baltimore native has been cheering on the Orioles since 1997, but after years of the team failing to even achieve mediocrity he settled into the tradition of avoiding watching any baseball beyond the annual trainwreck that was Baltimore’s season.
That all changed this year as the Orioles finished with a 101-61 record, racking up 100 wins for the first time since 1980.
“Usually this time of year, we’d turn baseball off and only watch football,” Lyman said. “This season was some of the most fun I’ve had as a baseball fan in a while. It was nice to have a team where going into each game you felt like you had a chance to win.”
This year’s team reinvigorated the city’s passion for the Orioles and helped many fans reclaim their joy for baseball after a number of forgettable years.
“It’s been so painful for the last five years that you forget how much you like baseball,” said Ron Snyder, a 45-year-old longtime supporter of the team and author of a book on the Orioles’ 1988 season. “When the team’s good, it not only gives you a reason to root for the Orioles. It gives you a reason to love baseball more.”
Although Baltimore’s success throughout 2023 didn’t culminate in a deep playoff run, it finally put together a season worth reflecting upon.
Playing without the weight of expectations
The most fun teams to watch in sports are the ones that catch you by surprise, the scrappy underdogs that come out of nowhere to emerge as legitimate challengers. That’s what the Orioles did this year as most pundits, betting sites, and even hometown fans didn’t have Baltimore pegged for anything close to 100-plus wins before the season.
Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have anticipated Baltimore finishing in first place in the stacked American League East. Normally at this time of the year, fans are spending their weekends trying to avoid heart palpitations during Ravens games while their Orioles gear collects dust in the closet.
But the 2023 Orioles captured the attention of the city with the type of grit and fearlessness that Baltimoreans have no choice but to embrace.
“[Fans] want to love the Orioles,” Snyder said. “It’s a football town and a baseball town. They want to love both these teams. Orioles fans especially love blue-collar teams. That’s why this team was so special: a lot of young kids that didn’t know they were supposed to be this good this soon. They were scrappy, and the potential is there for a long run.”
Baltimore didn’t just exceed expectations; it produced a wealth of unforgettable moments along the way.
Whether it was catcher Adley Rutschman’s historic 5-for-5 Opening Day performance at Fenway Park, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle’s nine RBI outing against the Oakland Athletics, or center fielder Cedric Mullins’ absurd catch against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles did more than just capture a boatload of wins this season.
They captivated the hearts and minds of fans in a way that even the most battle-scarred of supporters couldn’t resist. Baltimore native Anthony Valladeres has been rooting for the Orioles since 1979, and he finally was able to treat games this year as more than just background noise.
“When I’m watching nine innings and excited by that, that’s when I know I’m all in, and that happened this season,” Valladeres said. “There were games that I wanted to watch nine innings and was on the edge of my seat. That’s what this team brought me back to.”
The Orioles ran out of magical moments in the playoffs, but they undoubtedly gave fans a season to be proud of.
A painful early exit
Baltimore’s season came to an abrupt end with a 3-0 loss against the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, putting an end to the team’s streak of avoiding a sweep since May 2022.
And this wasn’t a case of games coming down to the wire with the Orioles failing to execute in crunch time. It was a plain old beatdown. Baltimore simply failed to execute in all phases of the game and were punished severely for it.
“There is no other way to put it: they kicked our ass,” said outfielder Austin Hays. “It sucks. Just couldn’t really get anything going. Couldn’t get any momentum on our side to get things rolling. It hurts, it really hurts.”
Combined, Baltimore’s three starters pitched eight innings and allowed 13 runs. The Rangers overwhelmed Baltimore with their hitting and never lost control of the series after the Orioles put up a valiant effort in a 3-2 Game 1 loss.
Pointing to the five-day layoff the Orioles had before the postseason due to the MLB’s new playoff structure as a factor in their early exit is a disservice to the Rangers. In this case, the team with the better roster prevailed and simply outmatched the higher seed.
While it was surprising to watch Baltimore struggle to make games competitive, the Orioles have a shot at redemption in 2024. What’s undetermined right now is how they will look when that time comes.
Where does the team go from here?
Experiencing ups and downs is a natural part of evolution for young teams, and this year was a huge step in the right direction for Baltimore.
It would be shortsighted to call this season a failure because of the lack of postseason success. Championship teams aren’t developed in one year. This year not only serves as a foundation to build upon for the next five years, but it also gives the Orioles plenty of motivation to make sure 2024 ends in a different result.
“This hurts, and it’s OK to hurt,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “It’s OK to have this kind of fuel your fire in the offseason. It’s going to take a while for us to get over this a little bit. But I think our guys will come in hunting and hungry in spring training. The guys coming back, especially the young guys, know what this feels like, knowing what it tastes like, and it sucks. If they did soak it in a little bit, they’re going to be better for it down the road.”
With a roster loaded with young, inexpensive talent, Baltimore has the flexibility to go in several directions. Its rotation sticks out as a key concern, so it could flip some of its prospects for an ace pitcher.
But the Orioles may instead opt to sink those resources into acquiring a premium batter to bolster their hitting. They could also attempt to retain their auxiliary pieces and run it back since most of their key players are under contract for next year and beyond.
Baltimore’s myriad of options essentially makes this offseason a litmus test for the front office to improve the roster without disrupting the team’s chemistry.
It has been a long time since Orioles fans have had something to look forward to, but that’s finally the case. The acclaim of Baltimore’s stellar regular season will only appease Orioles supporters for so long.
Now, it’s incumbent on the team to continue making great strides in order to cement the 2023 season as one that the city looks back on as the bedrock of building a perennial contender.
“I’m just so looking forward to the next five years,” Valladeres said. “I love the core of the team. I’m looking for a Houston Astros type run with the offensive talent we have. I don’t see why over the next four or five years 100 wins shouldn’t be the expectation.”
With spring training just four months away, it won’t be long until we see what the Orioles do for an encore.
“This year was a renaissance of Orioles baseball,” Snyder said. “This is the ‘Oriole way’ that everyone keeps talking about. It’s a homegrown team, so what I’m hoping is they take this and build on it.”