The Bird's Nest

How Should We Feel About the O’s Bandwagon Fans?

We suffered through losing seasons. They didn’t. Should we care?

If you’re a true Orioles fan, there is one adjective that best describes you: long-suffering.

To put it mildly, it’s been hard to be an O’s fan these last 20-or-so years. Since the year 2000, the Orioles have had exactly five winning seasons and two trips to the post-season (three, if you count the 2016 Wild-Card play-in game that we lost to the Blue Jays).

Instead, there has been a whole lot of losing, including a few historically bad seasons, like when we went 47-115 in 2018 and 52-110 in 2021. (And yes, I will be referring to the Orioles as “we” throughout this essay. I went through this stuff with them. If that offends you, so be it.)

Rooting for the Orioles has meant seeing a lot of strike outs, a lot of blow-outs, a lot of slumps, a lot of booted balls in the field, a lot of frustrated players and fans, a lot of painful trades (miss you, Manny Machado), and a whole lot of heartbreak.

It meant going to Camden Yards when half the (sparsely attended) stadium was filled with Yankee or Red Sox fans, whose chants gleefully (and obnoxiously) overpowered ours.

It meant thinking of the post-season as something that happened to other cities and other teams and, out of necessity, “adopting” teams in the post-season (for Orioles fans, that almost always meant rooting for the underdog, wistfully imagining that it could be us one day.)

It meant suffering in relative anonymity—unlike the Red Sox and the Cubs, whose losing was mythologized by the national media. Until their teams spent a whole lot of money and became perennial juggernauts, folks in Boston and Chicago turned suffering into an art, a civic identity—the whole nation took pity on them. The Orioles and their fans suffered in relative silence. We weren’t the nation’s darling underdogs. We were just bad.

Don’t get me wrong: It hasn’t all been awful. There were those sporadic playoff runs. The 2014 season was particularly good, featuring the legendary Delmon Young’s bases-clearing double against Detroit that sent Camden Yards into a frenzy (and the Orioles into the ALCS…where they promptly lost to the Royals 4-0).

We’ve seen some great players, not only the aforementioned Manny Machado, but the loveable Adam Jones—always hustling, always smiling, doomed to be the best player on a lot of lousy teams—who was rightfully celebrated last weekend at The Yard, where he retired as an Oriole. There was the Chris Davis phenomenon, which kind of encapsulates the misery of being an Orioles fan. Dude was incredible, hitting prodigious home runs like he was Hank Aaron, until we signed him to a payroll-busting, long-term contract and he promptly got the yips (or whatever your theory might be) and went into a prolonged, career-ending slump.

So yes, we’ve suffered. But we hung in there. We went to Camden Yards. We watched the games on TV and listened to them on the radio. We cheered for our unlikely triumphs and always held onto the sports fan’s best friend—the promise of next year.

And then, last year, “next year” came, well, sort of at least. It all began to turn around with the ascendance of phenom Adley Rutschman, the switch-hitting catcher who was called up from the minors in May of 2022. The O’s were 16-24 before Rutschman. After he arrived, they went 67-55 for the rest of the season.

In fact, since Rutschman has been an Oriole, the team has gone 152-106. Simply put, the guy brought a winning culture to the team.

So there was buzz around the Orioles this year, even murmurs that the team might make the playoffs. But no one saw this coming. The 2023 team has been an absolute phenomenon—with seemingly everything going our way.

Infielder Gunnar Henderson, who showed promise as a late-season call-up last year, has become an absolute superstar, and is a lock to be AL Rookie of the Year. Felix Batista (or “King Felix,” as I like to call him just to annoy Mariners fans) came out of nowhere to become the best closer in the game—until a UCL injury sidelined him, possibly for the rest of the season. (The Orioles have played their cards a bit close to their vest on his post-season status). Pitcher Grayson Rodriguez was called up, scuffled a bit, sent back down, and called up again. Since returning to the majors, he has looked like an ace, including this weekend’s shutout gem against the second place Rays.

And GM Mike Elias seemed to make all the right moves. When speedy outfielder Cedric Mullins went on the IL, the Orioles signed outfielder Aaron Hicks, who had been released by the Yankees. With the Bronx Bombers, he hit .188 and endured boos from the fans. With the Orioles he has flourished, batting .289 and instantly becoming a fan favorite.

Somehow, through a bit of front office wizardry, we got back Jorge Lopez, the pitcher we traded last year in exchange for Yennier Cano, who, by the way, has become an All-Star set-up man himself. Players like Ryan O’Hearn, Austin Hays, and Ryan Mountcastle are having career years. Manager Brandon Hyde, with his ever-shifting lineup, is pulling all the right levers—and beginning to look like some sort of baseball guru. I could go on and on and on.

Most importantly, after the literal years of misery, the Orioles are fun—young, enthusiastic, resilient, joyful. They’re also goofy, in the best possible way, introducing the double sprinkler and the “homer hose” (or the “dong bong,” as some fans have dubbed it) which inspired the Bird Bath section of Camden Yards, so fans could get in on the fun, too.

On Sunday, September 17, we clinched a playoff berth at Camden Yards, in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. It was thrilling. The crowd went bananas. Tears were shed. (By me, at least.)

And it became very clear that suddenly everyone was claiming they had been the Orioles’ No. 1 fan all along and referring to the team as “we.”

Now wait a second!

The question is, how should we, the real fans, feel about that?

On the one hand, it’s quite clearly unfair. We stayed loyal. They found better things to do. We rooted for the likes of Rio Ruiz and Pat Valaika, when most Baltimoreans couldn’t pick those guys out of a police lineup. We endured the Orioles losses. They went all in on the Ravens.

On the other hand, winning is good for a city. It helps with our civic pride. Fans coming to Camden Yards are investing in the stadium and the surrounding neighborhoods. People are in good moods—small talk inevitably turns to “how bout dem Os?”—and we’re bonding with friends and strangers alike.

Baltimore needs this.

So let me put it this way: If you suffered with the team, this season feels all the sweeter. Yes, new fans, bandwagon fans, fair-weather fans, whatever you call them—they’re having fun. They’re whooping and cheering and getting into the spirit of things. We encourage them to come to Camden Yards, to watch or listen to the games, to soak up every second of this. Hell, we encourage them to come to the Orioles World Series victory parade. (Too soon?)

But they’ll never understand how incredible it feels to those of who stuck with the team the whole time. Those who were patient. Devoted. Unwavering. They’ll never understand how invested we are. How much this means. How much we earned this.