Loyal to the Birds? Absolutely. Hopeful for the season? Absolutely not.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm not genuinely excited about the approaching baseball season. I'm thrilled to be attending Opening Day. I'm on board with celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of baseball's greatest ballparks. And I'll follow the Birds loyally for better or, more likely, worse. However, there's a key element missing for me altogether: hope.
You don't follow a team for 14 consecutive losing seasons without possessing an outsized sense of either optimism or masochism. For me, it's the former. But the truth is, my baseball optimism has run out.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I've continually believed for years now that things can only get better (Howard Jones, my musical friend, you are a liar). This naivety culminated in my honest-to-goodness belief prior to last season that the calvary had finally arrived, the bats had been bought (or, at least, traded for) rather than grown, and the wins were on the way now that the Buck stopped here.
A wild card berth? That was Debbie Gibson stuff ("Only in my dreams"); however, a .500 record - or at least a season-long chase of it - seemed entirely reasonable to me. After a glorious week or so to open the 2011 campaign, the Orioles produced perhaps the most disheartening run of baseball in Baltimore - as far as letdowns go - since the second half of the 2005 season. Somewhere along the way, my hope died.
If I had to pinpoint a moment that my baseball optimism was laid to rest, it would be a mid-summer minor league game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park when the team hosted the Norfolk Tides. Looking around the visitor's side of the diamond as the Bulls batted, I realized that there too many Josh Bells and Rhyne Hughes out there - guys who already had a cup of coffee and were scraping their way back for another taste - and not enough of the Matt Wieters of the world - genuine prospects biding their time on their path to certain roster spots- who I watched in the same ballpark just a few seasons prior.
It was during that ballpark visit last summer that I realized the nasty reality facing my favorite team: what you see on the major league diamond is what you get. There are no immediate reinforcements waiting in the wings. And let's face it, even naively optimistic fans like me know that free agency has become a folly in Baltimore.
So I don't expect much from the Birds in 2012 or really soon thereafter. Granted, much of the talent that provided hope headed into last season (the pitching in particular) could mature and, well, who knows. But I'm not counting on it.
Orioles broadcasts will still provide the soundtrack for my summer, but it would take quite a bit of work for them to capture my imagination and set my mind racing as I imagine the possibilities. For me, the Orioles have become more security blanket, less satin sheets.