After Machado Trade, Orioles Return to Baseball Wilderness
Deals Trigger Existential Crisis for Young O’s Fans
The Baltimore Orioles traded Manny Machado.
The cynics said this day would come. Some even wanted it to happen sooner.
But not the youth of Baltimore. Not the young people who grew up waiting to root for a homegrown talent of Machado’s quality blossom into a star.
Not the kids who grew up rooting for the O’s across 14 successive seasons spent in the baseball wilderness. The summers lost to a .437 winning percentage from 1998 to 2011. These young fans suffered the worst fate in all of fandom: total irrelevance.
The ghosts still haunt us: Sidney Ponson, Marty Cordova, Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, Jay Gibbons, Luke Scott, Daniel Cabrera, David Segui, and an elephant’s graveyard addition of Sammy Sosa. Imagine going from hometown hero Cal Ripken — even during his twilight years — to suffering through the indignity of Aubrey Huff and his “what a horseshit city” comment.
For that generation, my generation, Orioles fandom was built, despite the unpleasant present, upon a foundation of stories from fathers about heroes of Baltimore’s past. Stories about Brooks, Frank, Eddie, McNally, Palmer and Earl, and the excitement of Orioles Magic.
We had no contemporary reason to take pride in the team.
Manny Machado’s debut at age 20 changed that. He arrived amidst the first stirrings of excitement for these young fans. The Orioles, at 60–51 on August 9, 2012, were on the precipice of something special: They were more than competent, they were competitive.
“I think the biggest thing is that it’s really just them showing that they want to compete and they want to win,” said then-24-year-old Mike Croteau to The Baltimore Sun after Machado’s debut.
For the first time in over a decade, Baltimore became a place where the baseball season continued after the Ravens began training camp. Attendance at Camden Yards increased by 5,000 fans per game, ending four years of decline.
Our fathers’ stories made sense. There was reason to believe. This was my generation’s first glimpse of “The Oriole Way.”
But that era has ended.
For my generation of Baltimore fans that era is over now. Machado’s trade calls for an update of William Donald Schaefer’s famous interview from his porch after the Colts left Baltimore: The Orioles trading Machado “degrades a great tradition of the city” and baseball.
While the exodus of talent was limited to players—Machado, Zach Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day — rather than the franchise itself, the fans were still the ones left feeling dumped. Dad’s stories about the Colts leaving town made more sense, too.
Sending away 30-somethings at the trade deadline during a god-awful season is one thing. Trading a 26-year-old Machado, the best player to play at Camden Yards in an Orioles uniform as he enters his prime, is another.
The Orioles betrayed the trust of their young fans. This is not what serious franchises do.
For a few years, Baltimore fans felt like they were rooting for a serious franchise. There was serious talent — both in performance and mentality. And a serious manager hellbent on building a competitive, winning culture.
But this was an illusion. The fans mistook positive results on the field for a commitment from ownership to a long-term plan and a desire to build that competitive, winning culture.
Postseason defeats left fans crushed, a sting that comes from having skin in the game. But that’s the price of fandom, that is what makes being a fan worthwhile.
But the Machado trade is not like losing a game that mattered.
Ownership failed to follow through on the return of “The Oriole Way.” Their failure has again denied this generation of young fans the chance at having skin in the game.
That isn’t the price of fandom.
The most painful part of the Machado trade is the sense that Orioles fans deluded themselves. That they believed this time it would be different. That “the future of the franchise” would remain.
The cynics won.
“We still have sufficient resources to give the fans of Baltimore a championship team,” Peter Angelos said after buying the ballclub in 1993.
While Angelos’ resources may have been sufficient, no sustained period of investment has ever occurred in the 25 years of his ownership.
During the Orioles recent return to competitiveness, the club confounded experts by winning with a flawed roster thanks to smart managing by Buck Showalter and a great deal of luck.
General manager Dan Duquette cobbled together a decent ballclub by dumpster diving in the Rule 5 Draft and plundering the bargain bin of free agency in the weeks before spring training.
The one exception was signing Chris Davis to a club record 7-year, $161 million deal before the 2016 season. (A deal made partially in desperation after a disappointing 81–81 season in 2015 and following Davis’ 4-year stretch in which he averaged a .256/.342/.533/.876 slashline and a 136 OPS+ while hitting 159 home runs. More importantly, the Davis contract was an overcompensating attempt to buy more fan capital after letting Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz walk following a 2014 ALCS run.)
Many said this contract signaled Machado’s eventual departure. Was this the only big contract Angelos’ Orioles could afford?
If Angelos can afford just one big contract, then he does not have the “sufficient resources” to compete in the American League. He can never deliver on that promise he made the fans of Baltimore.
During the Davis negations, Dan Connolly wrote in The Baltimore Sun: “Traditionally, Angelos has avoided giving out top-market deals to players because he believes the trend of $20-million and $30-million annual salaries is pushing Major League Baseball away from the typical, middle-class consumer that attends games. The club prides itself in providing affordable family entertainment, especially compared to many other professional sports franchises.”
Family entertainment is nice, but that isn’t why people are fans. That is not what the “great tradition of the city” and baseball is about.
The existential crisis begins.
Two years later, Davis’ contract is a calamity, the Orioles have traded away the younger, more talented Machado, and begun a massive roster overhaul, trading away another homegrown 26-year-old talent in Jonathan Schoop.
Cue the existential crisis among young fans. Why should they pour time, emotional capital, and money into the Angelos family coffers after their failure to invest and build around this much young talent?
There is no precedent of a team trading a young talent like Machado and getting better anytime soon. Trades like this seem to only precede franchise turmoil. (And in one infamous instance an 86-year World Series drought.)
After the trade deadline, the Orioles began a rebuild with a glut of prospects. The ultimate goal of this strategy is that one day, a star talent or two comes through the pipeline that can be the centerpiece of something great.
Except Baltimore fans just experienced that best-case scenario playing out. It took over a decade of suffering, 14 years of being the laughing stock, and the 26-year-old generational talent was still dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers. For prospects.
Young O’s fans ask: Is our fandom of this ballclub a futile endeavor? If ownership’s goal is not competing, but “affordable family entertainment,” why root for the home team at all?
Peter Angelos is not Robert Irsay yet. But to fans, what is the difference between a team sentenced to irrelevance and no team whatsoever?
In the coming years the bonds of fandom will weaken, attendance at Camden Yards will drop, and enthusiasm will reach new lows. An all too familiar existence for my generation of Baltimoreans.
The baseball wilderness beckons. And again Orioles fans shall wander, so that another generation can grow up an exile in the land of the American League East.
Still waiting for the Angelos family’s “sufficient resources to give the fans of Baltimore a championship team.”
Ben Krimmel is a Baltimore-born writer and editor. www.benkrimmel.com