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For Orioles, a look into past beats a look into future

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SARASOTA, Fla. — In another week or so, the Baltimore Orioles will break camp and head north, straight into a time warp. This season marks the 20th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the iconic, groundbreaking, brick-and-steel palace that sits mostly unchanged a few hundred steps away from the Inner Harbor, and that remains the best thing the otherwise moribund franchise has going for it.

The Orioles will play up the anniversary over the course of the year, with a series of ceremonies and retrospectives. And why wouldn’t they? Memories are just about all the franchise has left these days. Camden Yards’s inaugural season, 1992, was the first in a string of five winning seasons during a six-year stretch, capped by back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997. Since then, the Orioles have endured 14 consecutive losing seasons.

A marketing degree should be a prerequisite to working for the Orioles, since spin-doctoring is such an essential part of the franchise’s mission these days. Anything to distract attention from the abysmal performance on the field.

Even Manager Buck Showalter (B.S. in education from Mississippi State, 1978), as passionate an advocate for the franchise as there is, understands this. Sitting at his desk at Ed Smith Stadium before a recent spring training game, scribbling out four days’ worth of lineup cards, he suddenly looks up and makes his pitch — the marketing kind.

“Hey, we’re trying to go to the World Series, okay?” he says. “I can dream: All these pitchers are going to jump to the level that we think [they] should be. [Injured second baseman] Brian Roberts is going to come back. This guy or that guy is going to [emerge]. I think about the best-case scenarios.”

But even Showalter can’t sustain the imagery any longer than that. After a pause he concedes, “I know the reality of those things happening are slim and none.”

March being no time for pessimism, the Orioles are embracing hope — more a long-term concept than a palpable emotion — wherever they can find it: In the glimpses of talent provided this spring by top prospects Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado; in the improvements of young pitchers Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and (before a recent bout of shoulder soreness) Zach Britton; in the acceleration of Roberts’s rehabilitation from a concussion that cost him the entire 2011 season.

“I just want to feel like we’re on our way,” Showalter said. “We had a better record last year [69-93] than the year before. The year before, we had a better record [66-96] than the year before that. We want to have a better record this year for the third year in a row. Now, the increments have not been [as big as] we’d like for them to be. But it is getting better every year.

“You don’t get to where we’re at overnight. There are some things we need to get right, but you can’t give in to the lure of the quick fix.”

Indeed, the Orioles mostly sat out this winter’s free agent market, signing a handful of aging veterans (Wilson Betemit and former Washington Nationals Nick Johnson and Luis Ayala) to low-risk deals; diving into the Asian talent market to sign left-handed pitchers Wei-Yen Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada; and somewhat curiously, trading away their most accomplished starting pitcher (Jeremy Guthrie) for one lesser starter (Jason Hammel) and one reliever (Matt Lindstrom).

That leaves the Orioles in a position not unlike the one they faced a year ago: relying largely upon their cast of young pitchers to carry them. They can only hope that goes better than it did in 2011.

“It was nice to see all the guys come in here ready to go,” said catcher Matt Wieters, implying that might not have been the case in 2011.

Perhaps no one symbolizes the state of the Orioles better than Matusz, the 25-year-old left-hander who arrived in Baltimore in 2009 as a former No. 4 overall draft pick and one of the brightest pitching prospects in baseball, a status he cemented with an impressive 2010 (10-12, 4.30 ERA).

But in 2011, just as the Showalter-led Orioles crashed after a 6-1 start, Matusz (after beginning the year on the disabled list) won his first decision of the year in June — and never won again. He went 1-9 for the year — interrupted by a demotion to the minors — and posted an ERA, 10.69, that ranks as the worst in history for any pitcher with at least 10 starts.

“No one wants to fail like that. We’re competitors. It sucks,” Matusz said. “But the only choice you have is to learn from it and try to get better.”

“Keep in mind,” said Showalter, “that a lot of these guys — they were the best pitcher in Little League. They were the best pitcher in junior high, in summer league, in high school, in college, in A-ball, in Double-A and Triple-A. Then all of a sudden, the first time they get their nose bloodied and somebody turns around a 93-mile-per-hour fastball like it’s a [batting-practice] fastball, it’s like, ‘Holy [expletive].

“It’s the first time [Matusz] has had any failure. It’ll make you stronger, if you understand why it happened, and what has to happen next. I love the way he’s responded to it.”

Just as Showalter is no longer viewed in Baltimore as a miracle worker, capable of turning around the Orioles by sheer force of will, no longer is Matusz expected to be an ace.

Around Camden Yards, it’s still okay to dream, but if it’s winning teams you want, you’re better off looking deep into the past, or deep into the future, than deep into the present.

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