Jonathan Villar had a good year in 2019. He was second on the Orioles in WAR with 4.0, was really the team’s only effective base-stealer with 40 stolen bases, and hit 24 home runs and 33 doubles. In late November, Baltimore placed 28-year-old middle infielder on outright waivers right before the arbitration deadline. Everyone knew why.
The Orioles, who are still at the part of the rebuild in which good players are worth more to them on other teams, didn’t want to pay the 28-year-old middle infielder the money he would have been owed after the arbitration, which was projected to be over $10 million. They eventually managed to trade him to the Marlins in exchange for a minor league pitcher not listed among Miami’s top prospects.
Instantly becoming the best player on the 105-loss Marlins is quite the penance for a man who played 162 games for the 108-loss Orioles in 2019. Villar, who enters his final arbitration-eligible season in 2020, will have to once more make the best of a non-contending situation. Meanwhile, as their former best player lands in Miami, the Orioles and their remaining fans will stay behind in Baltimore, where the rain continues to fall.
There would be no Orioles FanFest this year at the Baltimore Convention Center, a decision made for approximately 108 reasons. The team likely projected a dip in off-season fan enthusiasm, and determined that the 1,225,000 square feet of the venue would be about a million more than they would need for a winter fan event. So, they set about “looking into other ways of connecting with fans,” and that was how the first ever Orioles Winter Warm-up at Camden Yards came to be, featuring food trucks, vendors, and live music, framed around the centerpiece of a fan Q&A with some of the team’s leadership.
Walking into the stadium, it was clear that warmer days were a long way off. Picnic tables were stacked on top of each other, ensconced by piles of wet leaves. The sky was a thick grey and unloaded a consistent drizzle on the sparse migration of attendees toward the Eutaw Street entrance. A little girl with a Frozen umbrella started crying.
“Hey, let’s hear it for the Orioles for hosting this event today,” said the live band’s singer in between holiday tunes. “Gimme an ‘O!’” he shouted.
The barely audible response from a crowd spread thin up and down Eutaw Street made you wonder if he would actually bother to spell out the full word. But he committed, and the cheer got a little louder with each letter.
“Gimme an ‘E!’” he shouted. “What’s that spell?!”
“Ori… ole,” came the response.
“Oh, right,” he said. “I forgot the ‘S.’”
By the time the Orioles brass was taking their seats under the tent, it was raining sideways, rendering the shelter’s intended effects useless. Manager Brandon Hyde, GM Mike Elias, and assistant GM Sig Mejdal were guarded by a pair of slack-jawed nutcrackers, as well as Orioles team staffers holding the legs of the tent in place. At one point, when one of them had abandoned their post, the wind knocked one of the legs off the stage, causing stored-up rainwater to spill off the top and onto Hyde as he was signing an autograph.
“Shit,” he whispered.
One fan brought up the Nationals winning the World Series, and how it felt like a “slap in the face” for the Orioles’ regional “little brother” to win a title before the Orioles did (The Orioles do have three championships, the most recent being in 1983).
“Stupid question,” another fan muttered in response.
But, as Elias addressed in his answer, there’s no denying that the Orioles’ cratering is being comically contrasted by the success that surrounds them. Their closest geographic rival just reached the top of the sport. Across the street, the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens have become the most watchable team in the NFL. And here were the Orioles’ manager, GM, and assistant GM, fielding questions from about 100 or so fans in the rain who just wanted to hear something that would make them want to return to Camden Yards come spring.
It was a mostly productive session as fans lobbed congenial inquiries at them, and Hyde, Elias, and Mejdal politely responded. If there were any cantankerous malcontents who’d come ready to make a scene, they didn’t make themselves known. Sure, the Orioles brass had shown up to answer questions in inclement weather on a Saturday morning, but that was a small time commitment to make for a team asking fans to buy season ticket packages while also prominently featuring Mark Trumbo jerseys in the gift shop.
Nobody would have blamed the fans for being more exasperated, but most seemed like they just wanted to know who the GM liked in the minors, how the front office went about their jobs, who some of the leaders on the team were, how analytics factored into decision-making, and whether or not they’d considered selling the naming rights to Camden Yards in order to scare up some cash (This was predictably met by fervent head-shaking in the crowd and some light groaning).
One fan asked about any plans to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1970 World Series champion Orioles team; a team that won as many games as the 2019 Orioles lost. They were coming off a “nightmarish” defeat by the Mets in the 1969 World Series, and the following winter, despite their success, the team was under scrutiny by its fans.
“We’re trying diligently to make deals,” executive vice president Frank Cashen said from the Winter Meetings.
“But diligence is not enough in this case,” responded Bill Tanton, the sports editor of The Baltimore Sun.
Truthfully, Tanton wrote, the 1970 Orioles didn’t need much to improve and would in fact return as an AL powerhouse with the roster they had, but fans were anxious for something that would make it feel like the team’s preparations would achieve a different result. It’s the same story every season, whether a new pennant is flying over the stadium, or a roaring fireplace is displayed on the jumbotron to bring the illusion of comfort on a dreary day. These offseason fan events, which most every team has, give people a chance to feel like they are heard, and to be reminded that yes, baseball is still here, it’s just sleeping.
But for the Orioles, who had trouble attracting fans during the actual season (they finished 28th out of 30 major league teams in total and average attendance), this event was downgraded from the convention center space for a reason: The Orioles’ tank is in full-plummet. It’s the best way Elias and his front office see to get their team back into contention, and they’re not the first team to do it – though it’s been argued that it’s also not the only way.
And for fans, having to slog through at least a few years and a couple of long winters knowing that the team is doing everything it can to remain uncompetitive is a sad, draining era. The Orioles have put their trust in analytics and are not yet at the point of their rebuild in which talent at the major league level is the priority. It’s a modern baseball story we know well; of how one day we’ll all be as good as the Astros, because we hired one of their assistant GMs. And the Orioles may be a few years away from exactly the sort of success they’re picturing. But you need more than “eventually, this could work” to get people to come out in the rain.
Fandom requires nothing, but asks for a lot. We all know how much it is for a family of four to attend a major league game in 2020; we all worry the sport is in the middle of trying to destroy itself. Orioles fans are preparing themselves for a generation of basement dwelling and finger-wagging from the tanking-averse Buster Olney. It’s tough to be a fan, especially when success is so visible from other nearby sources. You may reach the realization that: I don’t have to do this.
It's likely that the Yankees will pay more for Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton than the Orioles will spend on their entire team.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 11, 2019
As the event concluded, the lingering few gathered their dancing children and disposed of their garbage from Boog’s BBQ. The music blared through the speakers, reverberating off of the brick walls of the warehouse, creating a nauseating echo effect. “Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” it asked once, and then again.
Huddled in the atrium near the exit, awaiting her ride and escaping the rain, a fan named Jamie explained why she had flown into Baltimore for the event: she comes from a family of Orioles fans who were dead set on being here today.
“I flew in from Florida to come into this lovely, cold weather,” she says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Really?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I did.'”
Jamie says, with a weary smile, that “2020 is gonna be a great year.” She thinks getting the right behind-the-scenes team members is crucial to moving forward. She didn’t get to ask a question of the triumvirate of assembled team leadership, but if she had, it would have been the same question on everyone’s mind when the forecast doesn’t look good.
“I would have asked, how were they planning on keeping it going,” she says. “Keeping it alive.”
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.