The scene before first pitch at last night’s Orioles-Blue Jays game. Photo by Brandon Weigel.
The scene before first pitch at last night’s Orioles-Blue Jays game. Photo by Brandon Weigel.

A lot happened in Baltimore sports in 2018. Yes, that’s bound to happen every year by virtue of all the games played. But a look at all the major developments for the area’s pro and college teams shows there were truly seismic changes. After years of competitive baseball, the Orioles fell flat on their faces, leading to a complete overhaul. On the verge of winning the AFC North, the Ravens are approaching the end of the Ozzie Newsome era and, by all accounts, have already concluded the Joe Flacco one.

Those are just a few of the major storylines to make our list.

Manny Machado. Photo by Keith Allison, via Wikimedia Commons.

Orioles trade away the better part of their roster

The 2018 Baltimore Orioles weren’t just bad, they were historically awful. Along the way to a franchise-worst 47-115 record, the club reached several dreadful milestones, including a .290 winning percentage that put them in the company of the 2003 Detroit Tigers and 1962 New York Mets.

As crazy as it seems now, the team had pretty reasonable playoff expectations after buttressing the starting rotation with the late signings of pitchers Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner. By July, when it was clear those postseason aspirations would never materialize, the front office decided to tear everything down and start a rebuild. As was expected, star shortstop Manny Machado, due to hit the open market in the offseason and receive a contract out of the Orioles’ price range, was shipped out in a trade, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. In more surprising moves, pitchers Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day were sent to the Atlanta Braves, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop to the Milwaukee Brewers. Schoop and Gausman were not due to hit free agency until 2020 and 2021, respectively.

With all the wheeling and dealing, the Orioles signaled the team’s competitive window and recent run of good play, dating back to 2012, was closed, and the organization would proceed with an eye toward the future. (Brandon Weigel)

Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles and Kenya Allen/PressBox

O’s organization cleans house

In the midst of all that losing, then-executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette heralded the Machado trade as the start of a new day in Baltimore. No longer would the Orioles sit out of the international amateur market–they were pretty much the only team to do so–and the club would finally jump into the 21st century and invest in scouting and data analytics.

When your organization only wins 47 games, though, heads are bound to roll, and Duquette and manager Buck Showalter were both told on Oct. 3 they would not be retained. Enter: Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde. A 35-year-old Virginia native, Elias was hired in November from the Houston Astros, where he oversaw player development for one of baseball’s best-run teams. At his introductory press conference, Elias made clear he would be implementing some of the same philosophical changes outlined by Duquette, and later brought on Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer (!) and Astros front office member, to run the analytics department. Earlier this month, Elias tapped former Chicago Cubs bench coach Hyde, known for his teaching skills, to be the manager.

Nobody is under the delusion that this house cleaning will immediately lead to wins in the 2019 season, but it’s clear ownership is serious about righting past wrongs and finally putting the Orioles on a path to winning and winning sustainably. (BW)

The new Pimlico Race Course with special seating and tents for the Preakness Stakes. Photo via the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The future of Pimlico reaches a critical point

Questions about the future of the Preakness at Pimlico are almost an annual tradition at this point, like the famous painting of the rider on the windmill in the colors of the winning jockey’s silks. If the track’s owners, the Stronach Group, had their way, the race likely would have been moved to the more modern Laurel Park years ago. But all the parties–ownership, the city, the state–concerned with the Preakness’ future commissioned the Maryland Stadium Authority to conduct a study on the race’s viability and lay out a path forward.

This month, the organization released the final part of its report, offering a $424 million plan to raze the current racetrack and construct a new facility that better integrates with the Park Heights neighborhood and includes new commercial and residential development and a campus for nearby LifeBridge Health. It’s a bold plan that could potentially be transformational for both the state’s racing industry and neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico, and has received endorsements from Mayor Catherine Pugh and a group of lawmakers representing the area that includes the track.

The big, looming question left unanswered is just who will pay for all of it. We’ll likely find out a lot more about the answer in the upcoming General Assembly session. (BW)

Photo via Baltimore Ravens

The Ozzie Newsome era ends for the Ravens

“In Ozzie We Trust” is a maxim that has guided Ravens fans for years–even those of us still scratching our heads over early-round picks like Matt Elam, Breshad Perriman and Sergio Kindle. In February, Ozzie Newsome, a front office executive in Baltimore ever since the team moved here from Cleveland, announced he was stepping down at the end of the 2018 season. Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta will take the reins.

The first African-American general manager in NFL history, Newsome achieved a great deal during his tenure, winning two Super Bowls, drafting two Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden (and counting) and establishing the Ravens as a model franchise for player development, as chronicled in John Feinstein’s book “Next Man Up.”

During his last time leading the draft room, Newsome showed he still had a few tricks up his sleeve, trading back into the first round after selecting tight end Hayden Hurst to take Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Which leads us to… (BW)

Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

The Ravens are now Lamar Jackson’s

By trading back into the first round to get Lamar Jackson, the Ravens tabbed the Louisville signal caller as the franchise’s quarterback of the future. But few would have predicted Jackson would have taken starting duties from long-time quarterback Joe Flacco so soon.

Playing in place of an injured Flacco for a Nov. 18 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson showed his immense talent for creating plays on his feet, rushing 26 times for 119 yards. The Ravens offense continued to adapt on the fly, becoming a run-first offense with read-option plays, jet sweeps, reverses and other trick plays.

Even though Flacco was healthy and cleared to play before a home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, head coach John Harbaugh decided to keep rolling with the dynamic Jackson, who’s gone 5-1 as the starter, as of this writing. (BW)

The Baltimore Blast celebrate their third straight championship. Image via Facebook.

The Blast keep winning

The Blast reaching the playoffs is basically a mortal lock at this point, with the 2017-2018 season marking the team’s 11th straight appearance in the postseason. Like all great dynasties, the region’s arena soccer team measures success by championship titles. After last year’s triumph against the Monterrey Flash, the titles total stands at 10, including an impressive stretch of three in a row.

But make no mistake, they had to fight for it. The Blast jumped out to a 4-1 lead against Monterrey, but the Flash battled back in the second half, narrowing the deficit to one goal. In typical style, the Blast clamped down on defense, with goalkeeper William Vanzela making beautiful save after beautiful save to keep the lead intact.

Given the amount of upheaval on this list, it’s only appropriate to mention that defender Pat Healey retired to coach the Harrisburg Heat, bringing along his father, Kevin Healey, to run the team. But there’s no doubt the Blast will still make a strong push for the fourth straight championship this season. (BW)

Photo by Ian Feldmann, via UMBC/Twitter

UMBC becomes a national darling

By no means were the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers supposed to be a national basketball storyline in March of 2018. Sure, the team was coming off a strong first season under head coach Ryan Odom in 2016-17, and was seen as a contender to take the America East Conference Championship. But even after beating the University of Vermont with a buzzer beater from Jarius Lyles to win that conference tournament–securing a NCAA Tournament berth in the process–it was statistically unprecedented for a 16-seeded team to go further than the first round.

But it happened. On a Friday night, the Retrievers didn’t just beat No. 1-seeded tourney favorite University of Virginia–they destroyed them, knocking the Cavaliers out, 74-54. It was the first time in the nearly eight-decade history of the men’s NCAA Tournament that a bottom seed upset a 1 seed. Lyles and seniors K.J. Maura (all 140 lbs. of him) and Jourdan Grant got some national shine, and the eyes of the world descended on Catonsville with questions like, “What’s UMBC stand for?”

The Cinderella run didn’t last long, though the Retrievers put up a valiant effort against Kansas State in the round of 32, falling by only seven points. The short-lived experience brought tons of money to the school in merch sales and advertising exposure, plus a spot in the record books. Until some other underdog comes and does it again, the Retrievers will own this slogan, seen on a banner hanging on campus during their victory lap last spring: “Number one seeds: 135-1. We’re the 1.” (Ethan McLeod)

Image via Ray Lewis’ official Facebook page.
Image via Ray Lewis’ official Facebook page.

Ray Lewis inducted into HOF (and gets his own parade)

There was never a doubt Ray Lewis would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With 2,643 combined tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions, Lewis is considered one of the best linebackers in NFL history.

Even so, it was both fun and ridiculous to see Lewis take the stage in Canton and go into full hype man/preacher mode, beginning his half-hour speech with a shout of: “Baltimore! Baltimore! We in the building, baby!”

To cap things off, the city threw Lewis a parade in September, before he was to be honored during halftime of the Sept. 23 game against the Denver Broncos. Lewis’ time in Baltimore has been filled with ups and downs, to put it mildly, but the enshrinement ceremony and parade were a fitting appreciation of a legendary career in football. (BW)

Photo via University of Maryland Athletics

Turmoil in UMD’s football program

Offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death from heat stroke was a tragedy, and as we would later learn, an altogether preventable one. First of all, it was ridiculous that the team was running 110-yard wind sprints on a hot spring day, but the mistakes compounded after McNair collapsed–nobody on the training staff properly diagnosed that he was suffering from heat stroke, a condition that could have easily been reversed by cold-water immersion.

In the wake of McNair’s death and reports that the football program promoted a culture of fear, abuse and intimidation, head coach DJ Durkin was suspended and a commission was formed to investigate the team. Incredibly, university President Dr. Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans did not formally apologize to McNair’s family until after these reports were published.

Even more confounding, the commission investigating the culture of the football program recommended keeping Durkin, a decision that received ridicule from pundits, fans, lawmakers and anyone with a conscience. With all that backlash, Loh quickly moved to fire Durkin.

Credit has to be given to interim head coach Matt Canada, who guided the team through an emotionally trying rollercoaster ride and steered all the media attention to the mettle of the young men under his tutelage. The team is now under the control of Mike Locksley, a former offensive coordinator at the college who possesses a knack for recruiting in the area that should help the Terrapins rebuild. (BW)

Young Orioles fans run the bases at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Image courtesy of the Orioles.

Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium consider their fans

One of the only good parts about being an Orioles fan in 2018 was the stadium experience. For families, the Kids Cheer Free program proved to be a gift. The franchise announced weeks ahead of Opening Day that any adult with a regularly priced upper deck ticket at Camden Yards could bring up to two children ages 9 and younger along at no extra charge.

There were the great deals on concessions, too. Oriole Park lowered the prices for domestic suds to $4 for a 12-ounce pour, $6 for a pint and $8 for a 20-ounce pour, and actually made the costs for snacks reasonable too, with fries going for $3.25-$5.25 and popcorn for $4-$6. And $1.50 for a kids-size hot dog? Unprecedented in recent memory.

The Ravens jumped on the fan-wagon, too, knocking dollars off the price tags for domestics ($5 for a 12-ounce can!), premium brews and spirits, as well as food, including nachos (down from $7.75 to $5), hot dogs ($5 to $3) and chicken and fries ($11 to $7). Coupled with M&T Bank Stadium’s recently unveiled escalators leading to the upper deck (others will be rolled out next season), the new sound system and improved Wi-Fi, it’s been a good year to be part of the Flock. (EM)