‘It’s contagious’: Spurred by young stars, Orioles’ optimism is standing out in Baltimore

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— In the back row of Section 86 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Danny Hoff and AJ Ubel doused themselves (and occasionally some spectators) with water bottles as their beloved Baltimore Orioles rallied and then The fell to 6–3. Behind the circle of Cedric Mullins.

The Waterworks were fully encouraged as the Orioles inaugurated a new cheering section on Friday night. Dubbed the Bird Bath Splash Zone, the sliver of seats in lower left field gives fans a chance to plop down after extra base hits and key moments in celebratory solidarity with their young 's water-themed traditions: big sprinklers for hits and “Home Run Hose.”

Orioles officials said they sold 2,000 tickets at the segment within 48 hours of announcing its existence. So Hoffa and Ubel — 25 and 26 years old, respectively — were just barely snagging seats in the designated area and mostly out of the purview of Mr. Splash, the team-appointed character guarding the water.

Still, they were thoroughly soaking in the optimism bubbling through the ballpark.

At his age, he never saw the Orioles the World Series. He never saw them win a game in the ALCS. Buck Showalter's three playoff teams scattered in the mid-2010s comprised his fantasy and were sandwiched between two long stretches in a goalless baseball wilderness.

Ubel said of the fallow years, “Tickets were very cheap at the time.” “So that was cool. But other than that, it was tough.

The direction started changing a few years ago, if not the result. The Orioles suffered three 100-loss seasons between 2018 and 2021, part of a ground-up rebuild under former Houston Astros architect-turned-Orioles GM Mike Elias. But when prized catcher Adele Rutsman arrived in 2022, the Orioles began showing flashes of brilliance almost immediately.

Hof said, “My whole teenage years growing up, we sucked, so it was hard to follow, but I played baseball, so I wanted to.” “Now it's getting more exciting.”

much more exciting. At 25-13, the O's are tied with the Atlanta Braves for the second-best record in MLB and have riveted the Internet in ways Elias couldn't scout or quantify.

Elias credited manager Brandon Hyde for the clubhouse atmosphere, telling Yahoo Sports, “Having a team with team cohesion and character and entertaining, quality human beings feels invaluable.” “But we're really lucky that we have just nice guys on this team. They're great guys, and you see them having fun with each other.

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“I think that makes it easier for the fans to love these people.”

Hof beamed as he discussed how the Orioles have suddenly become a fun team, thanks to a group of young, ascendant players — the most notable stars roughly his age — thanks to H20-infused high-jinx and social media. Through building a connection with the city. Which allows everyone to enjoy them.

The feeling, it turns out, is mutual.

How Orioles players brought fans into the splash zone

The Orioles really want you to know that they're not taking any with the “Homer Hose,” even though the Internet quickly dubbed it the “Dong Bong” for the exercise typically performed with beer, not water. Whatever the original intent, however, it indirectly led to the Bird Bath fan section.

James McCann, a veteran catcher who joined the Orioles in a trade from the New York Mets, doesn't remember exactly how the conversation went, but the new ballpark facility was hatched amid clubhouse nervousness about a possible misinterpretation.

“And someone joked and said, ‘Don't worry. By the end of the season, there will be a splash zone where fans are doing this to us,'” McCann said. “So I don't know who said what, but it It's like – actually, it's a good idea. And I think some of the right people listened, and it was taken into marketing, and here we are.

Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles' senior vice president for community development and communications, recalls McCann and pitcher Cole Irvin finding ways to engage fans and ultimately letting the public relations team take it away. For now, Grondahl said, the Mr. Splash character will be based on the section and spray fans on the field whenever the Orioles make sprinkler signals or hit a home run. (Signals, as McCann already demonstrated in one of the season's many viral moments, aren't always given.)

Given more time to think about how to execute the splash zone, she said they could add more to the experience later.

“It's a different sport — 10 years ago, you couldn't really interact with fans unless signing autographs in the stands. Now, I mean, you can have social media, you can Can interact effectively with the fans,” McCann said before Friday's game. “So I think, you know, involving the fans in that kind of celebration and just a player-to-fan interaction makes the game Brings us even closer to the fans.”

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It took a while for the first participants who wanted to join in the fun to get their first signal. The Orioles struggled against Pirates starter Johan Oviedo in the first game of the series. But then-emerging All-Star center fielder Mullins broke the dam with a leg-out triple in the fifth inning.

By the end of the night, he had sparked a furious Orioles rally, completing the cycle with a three-run homer in the eighth. Austin Hays, left fielder and one of the longest-tenured Orioles at age 27, got an earful of excitement.

“Mr. Splash was letting it fly out there. I know the fans were loving it. They were extra excited tonight,” Hayes said. “Get that guy over there. He was electric for the boys.

Whether they realize it or not, McCann said, the young Orioles are feeding off each other — and feeding off the energy they inspire at Camden Yards.

“It's contagious,” he said. “Whether you won last night or lost last night, being able to have fun and bounce back helps limit the downs of the roller coaster.”

Can sprinklers wash away years of waste?

In Section 86, fans agreed on several things: Ratschmann is an MVP candidate, Sprinklr celebrations are fun, and they would feel better about the Orioles' chances of competing in the stacked AL East if they could land at least one high- get the level. , veteran pitcher.

A 43-year-old lifelong fan named Tim bought the glasses for the chance to cheer on Bird Bath's thrilling players, but could muster only cautious optimism about the ownership's budgetary decisions.

After turning to his own thoughts for the evening, he said, “You have to upgrade the major league roster with some kind of expense.” He kept it “sweet” for this first splash zone trip, with only goggles and not adding a life jacket.

This, everyone seems to recognize, is perhaps the beginning of an as yet undefined era in Baltimore.

“I think we've said from the beginning, when Mike Elias was brought on and when our CEO John Angelos was put on the management team, that we were going to try new things, be to new ideas. ,” Grondahl said. “And I think this idea, this concept is indicative of the symbiotic relationship between the clubhouse and the front office and the positive culture that has been created over many years.”

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After the first signs of success in the previous season, Elias was tempted to hedge his bets and trade then-Jorge Lopez with the . He was immediately vindicated when Felix Bautista took over as the even more dominant closer. This season, the move looks even better, thanks to Cuban setup man Yener Cano coming into the deal. Cano has thrown 18 2/3 innings, striking out 22 and allowing a hard-to-criticize total of zero runs.

Less clear is how well the Orioles rotation fares for a summer of battles with the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox. Baltimore's pitching staff, as a whole, has been roughly average by park-adjusted ERA—but the starting rotation has taken its lumps, Ranking the game's 10 worst by the same metric, Several of its members — including elite prospect Grayson Rodriguez and Friday's starter, Kyle Bradish — are working through the very early stages of what could be tumultuous careers, but a winter headlined by veteran mid-rotation starter Kyle Gibson. did not inspire the same enthusiasm. as Mr. Splash.

For now, though, the Orioles are winning big by giving their fans a team to love, hold, dream about. Hoffa said he is looking forward to buying playoff tickets now that he has the money to spend. Ubel, soaked by the end of the night, said he came to several games per season, sometimes per month, even in the darkest hours. At some point, he acknowledged, the upward trajectory will hit the realities of competition. And he'll need the Orioles to win.

“I live in Hoboken [in New Jersey]so some of my friends are Yankees fans,” he said. “And they usually have the upper hand, but now it's our turn, so I'm up for it. I'm up for the talking when I come back.