BALTIMORE — Camden Yards is a glowing orange ballpark again, full of fans chanting “O’s” and begging for late-inning rallies, the majority of them decked in their loyalty T-shirts on warm summer nights. The names themselves tell a story in their variety and the roughly equal numbers in which they appear.
Wieters, Jones, Machado, Hardy, Davis, Johnson, Markakis and Showalter show up as often as Ripken and Murray. Oddities such as Bohchado, Buck Truck or a No. 16 Wei-Yin Chen jersey with Mandarin Chinese characters are as prevalent as Robinson.
After an eternity of waiting for the next generation of worthy Birds, the modern names far outnumber the ancients. A great baseball town that was dead has come back to life — not like its best days yet, but trending nicely.
Fans form dance lines in the upper grandstands during pitching changes to “Voodoo Chile,” do goofy impromptu gyrations when the camera catches them. They expect their hard-hitting Baltimore Orioles to come back from three runs down and they are going to try to help make it happen. After 60 seasons of baseball, they know when and what to cheer for.
Here “Kiss Cam” is an unashamed contact sport with one grandma giving a French variation. “Ollie’s Bargain Outlet” advertises prominently. A boy snags a foul ball in his mitt, and the gray-haired lady next to him with the shoulder ink gives him a high five. On a Tuesday night with 29,160 on hand — about this season’s average of 28,887 — the whole game is a sustained celebration, even though the O’s lose for the sixth time in eight games.
A couple of young stud starting pitchers, hon’, that’s all we need.
“I get Baltimore. It’s blue-collar, friendly, hard-working and people care. It’s one of those towns like St. Louis and Kansas City that ballplayers have always liked. And it has a memory,” said Manager Buck Showalter, a baseball brainiac who, a decade ago, was wound a few twists too tight for this planet or greatness as a manager. Not anymore. He’s at home here or, perhaps, just more at home with himself at 57.
“They want to be relevant here again,” adds Showalter, whose strategies, intensity, dugout presence, blunt closed-door meetings and (shock) communication skills with young players are a big part of why they are. But Buck hates the idea that reaching the playoffs last season for the first time in 15 years, or being in contention again with a 50-42 record after Wednesday night’s win, is a sufficient goal.
“People need to understand that we are in the middle of a process,” he says, “not at the end.”
The Orioles’ strength is a classy, in-its-prime everyday lineup that has stayed almost mystically healthy this year. “They hit and field better than we did,” Orioles broadcaster and ’83 World Series MVP Rick Dempsey said.
Unfortunately, the Birds also have enough fourth and fifth starters to fund the rotations of several teams. But there’s no ace in sight. “They don’t have the starting pitching we had,” Dempsey said, putting it kindly. That one Chen jersey may be the only O’s shirt for a starting pitcher in the park.
The O’s just traded a young back-end starter, Jake Arrieta, for an old back-end starter, Scott Feldman. It’s an upgrade in poise, but not a change. Those cruel advanced metrics that mid-market teams such as the O’s and A’s must study say that Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Hammel and Zach Britton are all the same pitcher: destined to a 4.25 to 4.75 ERA once enough innings and batting-average-on-balls-in-play variables even out. The O’s may be better than 29th in runs allowed, but not much better.
So for the second straight season, the Birds are a delightful stat-defying chemistry project, the kind of tightly bonded, smart, low-mistake, web-gem team that knowledgeable fans love to adopt — ’cause they need help.
Three-and-a-half hours before games begin, you can see part of what makes the Orioles cohere. It’s a friendly nest. Four tall Birds play high-level doubles Ping-Pong in the middle of the clubhouse, everyone giving the battle room for smashes and retrievals. Occasionally, paddle king J.J. Hardy, all-star starter at shortstop and the son of a tennis coach, deigns to let a rival challenge him for supremacy. A few yards away, a slate-bed pool table is in constant use. So, 24 percent of the team is in a revolving imitation of a frat house before they hit the field.
This is not how the Yankees’ main locker room feels.
All-star center fielder Adam Jones sits and evaluates an interview by all-star first base starter Chris Davis on his plans for the Home Run Derby. “As a child, I always watched,” Crush said. “Swing hard and hit it far.”
“Now that Chris Davis the superstar is done,” Jones told reporters, “you can come [talk] to the peasant.” All in an afternoon’s agitation.
“Either they are different or I’m different,” said Showalter, acknowledging he was never as comfortable managing the Yanks, Diamondbacks or Rangers as he is with these Orioles. “Even if I weren’t their manager, I’d love to be around this group. There isn’t a day that I don’t have at least one deep belly laugh.”
Manny Machado, the team’s 21-year-old symbol of promise, noticed recently that Showalter’s phone had no apps.
“What’s an app?” Showalter said, playing dumb.
“Like Pandora,” Machado said.
“I know what Pandora’s box is,” Showalter said.
The battle was joined. Now, when Machado passes Showalter, he says, incredulously, “You don’t have any apps.”
“I don’t know? Where are they?” Showalter says.
That’s the smiling surface of the Orioles, but Showalter is still, as he always was, “the purveyor of reality” in the clubhouse. All that hard-nose didn’t disappear. Showalter and closer Jim Johnson had a heart-to-heart after Johnson’s sixth blown save in which the value of “presence and presentation” was discussed in vivid terms. You may never again see Johnson dawdle or shake off Wieters.
The Orioles really are in the middle of a process, one that probably can’t reach its next level until someone — maybe raw Kevin Gausman, now back in the minors, or Dylan Bundy, out with elbow surgery — becomes a true ace. So their persistence has to be as constant as their rotation’s limitations.
“We’ve been struggling with the bats lately,” Machado said. “We’ve got to keep grinding, just keep playing baseball. It’s 162 games, not just 10 when we’re [slumping]. Keep it fun.”
At Camden Yards, that’s what Oriole baseball finally is — once again.
For more from Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.