The Orioles are a dream on the field. Behind the scenes it’s different

Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images

With her Baltimore Orioles-themed Hawaiian shirt draped over her Baltimore Orioles T-shirt, Maureen Hall has been hooked on baseball since she was seven years old. The clacking sound of metal baseball spikes reminds her of the time she caught eyes with franchise legend Brooks Robinson as he jogged onto the field at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. The muffled sounds of AM radio remind her of the nights she tucked a transistor radio underneath her pillow so she could listen to the Orioles before falling asleep. Weekday afternoon games remind her of when she ditched the nuns at Seton High School in favor of a deli sandwich and a daytime ballgame.

Standing beneath the brick buildings that tower over the right field pavilion at Camden Yards, Hall has the Orioles logo dangling from her earlobes, adorning the temples of her sunglasses and tattooed on the inner part of her left arm. She worked for 25 years as a middle school teacher, but that didn’t stop her from attending every opening day and, if she was able, around 50 games per season. Since Camden Yards opened in 1992, she spends as much time in the stands as she can.

“It’s just kind of my happy place,” she says. “It’s my Disneyland.”

Hall is like many Orioles fans: devoted for generations and starved for wins. And she says that this might be the most exciting season that she can remember.

The Orioles are baseball’s unlikeliest success story. Entering the 2023 season, Baltimore had the most losses of any franchise since 2018 and the game’s second-lowest payroll in a division featuring wealthy blue-bloods like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and the brainy Tampa Bay Rays. Thanks to elite homegrown talent and dominant relief pitching, the Orioles entered Friday with the best record in the American League and have a 97% chance to make the playoffs according to Fangraphs.com. Often dormant in the late-summer months, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is teeming with locals donning orange and black to watch baseball’s most irresistible Cinderella story. On course for a legitimate run at their first World Series title in 40 years, Baltimore are averaging 5,500 more fans per game than they did in 2022, many of whom don jerseys and T-shirts of young stars like Adley Rutschman (25 years old), Gunnar Henderson (22) and Cedric Mullins (28).

Thanks to elite homegrown talent and dominant relief pitching, the Orioles have the second-best record in Major League Baseball.

Thanks to elite homegrown talent and dominant relief pitching, the Orioles have the second-best record in Major League Baseball. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“For fans, I think there’s just nothing better than to know that your organization really was smart,” says John Eisenberg, a longtime Baltimore Sun columnist and author of two books on the Orioles. “The presence of those young players just gives you some faith that the organization knows what they’re doing.”

Except the team’s historic success wasn’t the dominant storyline when the defending World Series champion Houston Astros arrived in Baltimore last week. Late Tuesday, the website Awful Announcing reported that popular play-by-play announcer Kevin Brown was indefinitely suspended by MASN, the team-owned cable network. The Orioles refused to comment on the suspension, but sources told Awful Announcing that Brown’s discussion of the Baltimore’s road struggles against the Tampa Bay Rays angered owner John Angelos.

The backlash across baseball was swift and fierce, particularly because Brown simply recited statistics from an on-screen graphic documenting the team’s futility in past seasons. New York Mets announcer Gary Cohen devoted about a minute of airtime lambasting the Orioles and declaring that if they did not want Brown, “there are 29 other teams that do”; Boston Red Sox announcer Dave O’Brien labeled it “a fiasco”; even CNN News Central anchor John Berman mocked the team for its pettiness, jokingly suggesting that the network should get Dr Sanjay Gupta to diagnose the owners with “chronic thin-skinedness”. Brown is expected to return to the air on Friday, but some fans brought signs calling for Brown’s immediate reinstatement while “Free Kevin Brown!” chants erupted during the Orioles’ Wednesday and Thursday games.

“Kevin Brown has been the soundtrack to this great Orioles season,” Eisenberg says. “The broadcasters are the conduit to the team and integral to the fan experience. And if you get a good one, that’s a great thing for the fans. And if you mess with it, the fans do not like it and they do not forget.”

Baltimore have averaged 5,500 more fans per game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards than they did in 2022.

Baltimore have averaged 5,500 more fans per game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards than they did in 2022. Photograph: Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

For longtime followers of the Orioles fans, the Brown incident was unwelcome déjà vu. From 1983 to 1996, the voice of the team was hall-of-fame broadcaster Jon Miller, whom the Baltimore Sun described as “a civic treasure, up there with humidity and steamed crabs”. After the 1996 season, Miller did not have his contract renewed because of differences with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who felt that the team broadcaster “should be an advocate for the team. They’ve got to bleed a little bit for the Orioles.” Miller is now in his 27th season broadcasting the San Francisco Giants, better known as a civic treasure in the Bay Area instead of Baltimore.

“It really left a hole in the baseball fabric here,” Eisenberg says. “People just never forgave Peter Angelos for that and they never will.”

The Brown debacle may be soon forgotten, but it is another source of distrust in a long, complex story between Orioles fans and the Angelos family. Initially seen as a local hero for purchasing the Orioles from a New York financier, Peter Angelos developed a reputation as a meddling owner overseeing a long-term decline of one of baseball’s proud franchises. In February, the family settled a suit filed by Peter’s son Louis against his brother John, the Orioles’ current CEO, and his mother, Georgia, regarding control of the team and the family law firm now that Peter Angelos is 94 years old.

Now, fans are nervous about John Angelos’s refusal to sign a new lease for the Orioles stadium despite a $600m commitment from Maryland House Bill 896. The Baltimore Banner recently reported that Angelos wants $300m more and control over surrounding public land in an attempt to develop the area.

The Orioles’ surprise 2023 season comes off a five-year stretch where they recorded the most losses of any team in the major leagues.

The Orioles’ surprise 2023 season comes off a five-year stretch where they recorded the most combined losses of any team in the major leagues. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The lease is set to expire at the end of the year, but Angelos is adamant that the team will not leave Baltimore (and, according to the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would not let him move the team). Still, Angelos’s decision to not yet sign the lease has caused one Maryland official to urge Angelos and the state to “get the damn thing done”, especially after the city’s NFL team, the Ravens, re-signed their lease with $600m in renovations in January.

Even if there is close to no chance that the Orioles move, Baltimore is the wrong city to even invoke the notion of relocating. Before the city had the Ravens, football fans watched their beloved Colts move to Indianapolis in 1984. Hall was a junior in high school and remembers going to school the day after the moving trucks notoriously left for Indianapolis in the middle of the night. “It was like the day John Lennon got shot,” Hall says. “Losing the Colts was like losing your brother.”

Despite the drama surrounding Brown’s suspension and the stadium lease, Hall and her fellow Orioles fans are crazy about the team. She says she’s already saving money for playoff tickets and, she hopes, the World Series. When asked for her thoughts on the Brown suspension and the lease, she said she bought a Mega Millions ticket when the jackpot was $1.5bn so she could buy the team and sell it to the fans so it would be community-owned. Maybe that way, there wouldn’t be such uncertainty between the fans and that ownership of the team that they adore.

“The fans are on cloud nine and they should be on cloud nine,” Eisenberg says. “But you see something like [the Brown suspension] and you just gasp. Things were going so good. How could this happen?”

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