It's amazing how quickly this city changes from purple to orange.
Nowhere is this more evident than FanFest, held just one week after the Ravens were ousted from playoff contention. On an unseasonably warm afternoon in January, more than 12,000 O's fanatics filled the downtown Convention Center to get photographed with The Bird, wait in staggeringly long lines for autographs, and even get a chance to chat with one of their favorite players.
Around 4 p.m., there was an unmistakable buzz surrounding the main stage. A safe assumption would be that it's one of the veterans up there—maybe Nick Markakis or Brian Roberts—waxing poetic about his years on the team. But once you get past some of the standing-room-only crowd, it's quite the opposite: five baby-faced newcomers. "This is the largest crowd we've had here all day," says emcee Jim Hunter. The crowd laughs, but there's something serious going on here. These five players—Brad Bergesen, Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman—showed so much promise during their rookie 2009 season that Orioles fans are banking on them. To Orange-and-Black Nation, these five represent no less than the very future of the team.
"There is no question of the talent these young guys have," says Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "If you're looking at championships down the line—and that's why you play the game—that's what these guys can bring."
For a team that has had (gulp) 12 consecutive losing seasons, even hearing the word championship can inspire much-needed hope. Each player came up through the Orioles minor leagues and ended up with impressive numbers last year: Bergesen notched 65 strikeouts in 19 games, Wieters drove in 43 runs, Reimold hit 15 home runs, Matusz won five out of seven starts, and Tillman (the youngest, at just 21 years old last season) struck out 39.
But baseball stats aside, there is something intangible that all five of these players bring to the Orioles clubhouse—an enthusiasm and energy only seen in rookies, the kind of energy that could propel a team to victory.
"You need that breath of fresh air, to see their eyes wide open when they walk onto the field," says second baseman, and nine-year veteran, Brian Roberts. "It keeps it in perspective and makes you realize that our future is very, very bright."
Like many future major-leaguers, most of the O's newcomers grew up loving the game of baseball. Bergesen, now 24, remembers spending many summer days in his hometown of Fairfield, CA, trading baseball cards with friends. Twenty-six-year-old outfielder Reimold started out playing shortstop in Little League in Greenville, PA. Catcher Wieters, 23, spent every night he can remember sitting in front of the TV with his dad in Goose Creek, SC, watching their beloved Atlanta Braves. And Matusz, 23, says he feels lucky that his childhood passion turned into a pitching scholarship at University of San Diego. Only Tillman, now 22, says he wasn't that into baseball as a kid growing up in Anaheim, CA.
"I know it sounds weird, but I grew up by the beach and just wanted to surf," he says. "I didn't even get into pitching until my first couple years of high school."
But, one way or another, they all made it to the big leagues. All baseball players remember what it's like getting called up to the majors, whether the news is delivered on the bus to a game or actually on the field. Matusz admits he had to hold back some tears when he got the call.
"I had just pitched a shutout inning in Double-A in New Britain," he says. "The manager pulled me to the side and said, 'That's it.' I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'You're pitching in Detroit in three days.' I remember I couldn't stop shaking and I called my dad right away."
A debut for any baseball player is a big deal. But, in Baltimore, there might be some added pressure because of how devoted the fans are to the players, even before they enter the majors.
"For as long as I can remember, the fans here have always had a huge interest in their farm system," says Orioles president Andy MacPhail. "Partly because of the geographic proximity of these minor league teams, but partly because they're just so invested in the future."
This was certainly the case when the highly touted Wieters made his debut on May 29 to a sold-out stadium of fans and masses of media outlets in the clubhouse. There was a palpable excitement in the air. Heck, there was even a rainbow over Camden Yards.
"I was just thinking, 'Don't do something to embarrass yourself,'" Wieters recalls. "When you come up with that sort of hype, you want to hit a home run every time. But this game's too tough for anyone to do that, so you just have to go out there and play like you know you can."
This philosophy worked for the catcher, as he finished his season strong, batting .362 and earning 14 RBIs in the month of September.
Also playing in Wieters's debut game was Bergesen, though he didn't come up with that same level of expectation. Affectionately known as "Bergie" in the clubhouse, he made his debut earlier in the year and proved to be arguably the Orioles's most dependable starting pitcher.
"I never looked at myself as an ace, that was always [Jeremy] Guthrie," Bergesen says. "I just always wanted to work hard and go deep in games."
He continued to do just that until a line drive hit him straight in the leg on July 30. Bergesen thought his shin was broken at first, ran off the field into the clubhouse, and collapsed when his leg gave out from under him. Though an MRI revealed no bone fracture, the injury ended his season.
While fans were heartbroken to see Bergesen go, it made way for Matusz, or "B-Matt," to get on the mound. For his debut, 27 of Matusz's closest friends and family filled the seats in Camden Yards. And they were not disappointed. He earned a win in that game and went on to win five more starts and strike out 38 batters. But, despite that success (or more accurately, because of it), the Orioles shut him down on Sept. 14 to preserve his arm for 2010.
"I felt healthy, so I didn't want to stop throwing," he says. "But I knew it was coming. They always told me right around 160 innings they would shut me down. At least I won my last three games and ended on a positive note."
Matusz's best friend on the team is fellow West Coast resident Tillman. They always sit next to each other in the dugout, and, when one player is out signing autographs, fans always ask where the other one is.
Tillman, whose teammates call him "Tilly," was called up on July 29 last year and had a pretty streaky season. In one five-start span in August, he posted a more than respectable 3.34 ERA, but he only ended up winning two of his five starts.
"Last season was a lot about me getting the jitters out," Tillman says. "I have to be more consistent and throw more strikes, and that comes with maturity."
The player that blew everyone's expectations out of the water was outfielder Reimold. He quietly debuted on May 14 and ended up having a stellar season: He led American League rookies in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and walks.
"I always expect big things from myself," Reimold says. "I would have been surprised if I didn't do that well."
Unfortunately (and pretty impressively considering his accomplishments), Reimold was dealing with the pain of a frayed Achilles tendon for most of the season and was shut down in September to recover. Before his season got cut short, Reimold was a major contender for AL Rookie of the Year.
For years now, the Orioles orgaN-ization has been encouraging fans to be patient: Yes, the team has floundered. Yes, it's been a painful winning drought. But look to the farm system! That's our future.
Last year, the future arrived en masse—the Orioles had a total of nine rookies on the roster.
"These guys were the final result of a blueprint planned out years ago," says hitting coach Terry Crowley. "But to have that many come so soon was even more than we were expecting."
The group already felt comfortable, as all five played together at some point, whether in Norfolk, Bowie, or the Arizona Fall League, which Orioles manager Dave Trembley says helped them from day one.
"They all automatically fit in very well in the clubhouse," Trembley says. "They genuinely like each other, and you can tell because they're always together."
It's not often that a team gets an influx of top-tier rookies all in the same season. From a player's perspective, that camaraderie made adjusting to the majors a lot easier.
"It was great when I came up because the rookies were able to give me advice about what they just went through," Wieters says. "Plus, the veterans don't pick on you as much when you start to outnumber them."
Of course, the young players admit, there was some ritual hazing, some expected (like an Adam Jones pie to the face after an accomplishment) and some pretty unexpected (like being forced to answer very personal questions over a microphone in the front of the entire team bus).
"With rookies around, the clubhouse gets a little bit sillier," Crowley admits.
The large group of young guys also serves to remind the older players what a privilege it is to play this game at the highest level. And all five first-year players admit they had plenty of goose-bump moments in 2009.
"You can't get much better than hitting your first major-league home run off of a Hall-of-Famer in Yankee Stadium," says Reimold of his May 20 rocket off Mariano Rivera.
The other players, not surprisingly, count their experiences playing against the Yankees as some of their most awestruck. Bergesen remembers it really got to him when he walked out to the bus with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez one day.
"I didn't think it was going to hit me that hard," he says. "But to realize you're on the same playing field as these guys is crazy."
Likewise, growing up in Colorado, Matusz's favorite player was the Diamondbacks's Mark Grace. Grace, now retired and doing color commentary, called a game last season when Matusz pitched against the Rangers.
"I brought my Mark Grace jersey up to the radio booth before the game," Matusz says. "We talked for half-an-hour and it was pretty special. I ended up winning that game, too."
Through it all, the five young players were able to form a strong bond. During the season, they all lived in Canton, and some hung out at the ESPN Zone or ate crabs during downtime. Bergesen, who's been married for about a year, and Reimold, the mellowest of the five, say they preferred to hang at home. But they all adopted a strong appreciation for Baltimore.
"I love it here. There's a different lifestyle living in a city," Matusz says. "Each neighborhood has its own character and you can see how much people really love their city."
Two of them were already familiar with area: Bergesen's wife grew up in Catonsville, and Wieters's sister lives downtown. But some guys admit that they were a bit nervous coming to a town that wasn't exactly known for racking up baseball pennants.
"You know, just looking at the Orioles record, I wasn't sure how the fans were going to be," Tillman says. "But Baltimore has some of the most supportive and loyal fans in the league."
And now, all eyes are on 2010. The rookie season was surreal and amazing and it flew by all too quickly. But now these guys won't be sneaking up on anybody. And there's a reason why the phrase "sophomore slump" exists.
"These kids are going to have to learn when the league starts adjusting to them," MacPhail says. "Our job in the off-season was to get veteran players around them to prepare them even further."
The Orioles president was probably referring to acquisitions like 13-year veterans Miguel Tejada and Kevin Millwood. Tejada, a former O's shortstop, will move to third base and boost the core of veteran players. Young pitchers are already excited to learn from longtime hurler Millwood, who comes to Baltimore from the Texas Rangers.
Also important for the rooks is recovering from nagging 2009 injuries. Bergesen says that his shin feels back to normal. (Ironically, the pitcher strained his shoulder while shooting a TV commercial in December and had to sit out some of spring training.) Following the end of last season, Reimold had surgery on his Achilles tendon and was doing rehab well into the winter.
"I'm feeling good now," Reimold says with the understated confidence that characterizes most of his answers. The outfielder is almost abnormally relaxed and composed in an interview, much like his attitude at the plate. Nothing seems to faze him.
"Nolan has a blue collar approach to the game," Trembley says. "He has a keen eye and can hit home runs to all fields. He's improving his outfield play, and left field should be his position in the coming years."
Then there's Wieters, the guy with the most fanfare. He's tall at 6'5" and carries himself like he's been in the majors for years—probably because of all the extra media attention. Crowley calls the pressure on the catcher "unfair," but says he's handled himself well despite it.
"Wieters will be the Orioles catcher, and a good one, for the next decade or longer," Trembley says. "He's got a big upside, hits for average and power, and doesn't get rattled."
As for the future of our pitching staff, a tumultuous subject throughout Orioles history? Well, there's hope there, too. Once a few kinks are worked out, Kranitz believes the team will have a successful starting rotation.
"Bergesen relies on the ability to get a ground ball, which is huge. Ground balls can't go over the fence," he says. "Matusz is a total four-pitch package—and all of them have quality. Tillman is the baby of the group, but I can envision him in the next couple of years being an absolute jaw-dropper."
If all of this sounds like it falls under the category of typical April optimism, that's because it does. Every spring, as flowers bloom and temperatures climb, Orioles fans all around the city start feeling a sense of expectation, usually crushed by the time the All-Star break rolls around.
But something, genuinely, feels a little bit different this season. Maybe that infectious rookie enthusiasm that Roberts was talking about has rubbed off, but 2010 just feels like the year the team can finally make some noise. Or at least get over the .500 hump.
"A couple years ago, it was frustrating to think of this as a rebuilding process," Roberts says. "But I don't think of it like that anymore. I don't feel like we're as much rebuilding as we are preparing to win."
Soon, maybe fans will still be wearing orange in October.