Orioles fans weathered several ‘hopeless’ years. Their reward? A return to ‘Orioles Magic.’ – Boston Herald

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Caleb Ellison went to Camden Yards in August, wearing an Orioles Hawaiian shirt, a black-and-orange baseball cap and, notably, nothing covering his face.

He was happy to be seen.

It had been five years since Ellison wore a paper bag over his head to a few games during the 2018 season as he and the Orioles endured a franchise-worst 115 losses. A common trope in sports, Ellison wore the cut-out brown bag — captured by a Baltimore Sun photographer during one September loss — to symbolize his embarrassment. The Orioles were awful. And they were going to be awful. For Ellison, then a 16-year-old student at Old Mill High School in Millersville, that time felt “hopeless.”

“[I’d] show up to the Yard completely normal and then as soon as the score became 9-3 or whatever, I’d put it on, you know, hide the shame,” he said.

There’s been no need to hide this year. The Orioles, expected to finish below .500 and out of the playoffs by sportsbooks and statistical projections, have been the best story in baseball. Young, homegrown stars like Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez — who climbed the minor league ladder while the MLB team struggled in recent years — have joined with little-pursued veteran players to form an undaunted, consistent group.

The Orioles have not been swept since May 2022, a streak of 91 straight sweep-less series that marks the longest streak in MLB since World War II. They won 101 games for the first time since 1979. And they’ve done it all after fans suffered through years of despair.

“It’s been awesome,” Ellison said.

Of all the joyous moments that the 2023 season has supplied, none topped Thursday as the Orioles clinched an American League East title for the first time since 2014 with a 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox. In doing so, they earned a bye in the first round of the MLB playoffs and will begin the AL Division series at home on Saturday.

On that day, the team’s first postseason game since 2016, there will be no brown-bag helmets at Oriole Park. Instead, fans will be eager to root for a franchise that has firmly put its five-year rebuild in the rearview and has only the fruits of that labor ahead of it.

The return of the magic

During the rebuild — the years when the Orioles fielded mediocre rosters at best and redirected resources toward developing the future — the baseball year felt long. There was a 19-game losing streak. Meager attendance. Games lacking any significance, except maybe for the opponents, by August.

But this season has instead felt fresh, a giddy whirlwind of walk-off wins, unlikely heroes and one-time prospects blooming into bona fide stars.

It has returned the baseball buzz to Baltimore, which has seen better attendance at Oriole Park than any year since 2017.

When Orioles pitcher Kyle Gibson picked up a coffee at Morning Mugs in Federal Hill before a game last week, he found written on his cup: “Let’s Go O’s.”

“I think this city is getting pretty excited,” Gibson said of the postseason.

“Orioles Magic,” that catchy 1980 ballad about dramatic wins during the days of manager Earl Weaver and the three-run homer, has never left Baltimore. But the song rings truer when the Orioles are winning.

“Certainly, the magic of the Orioles is back,” according to the man who composed the song himself, Walt Woodward. “In a lot of ways, what’s going on now reminds me of what was happening back at the end of the ‘70s. It’s sort of like the little engine that could.”

Woodward, who was born in Austria to a U.S. military spy and grew up in North Carolina and Florida, wrote country music songs in Nashville and, later, advertising jingles in Ohio. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he carved out a particular niche: MLB teams, including the Orioles, hired him to create songs about their club. He wrote “Orioles Magic” in about an hour.

In the decades since, Woodward pivoted careers, received a doctorate in history, became a professor and served as the Connecticut state historian. For the bulk of that time, “Orioles Magic” has stayed a part of Baltimore’s baseball fabric and, probably more than anything else Woodward wrote, including country songs like “Marty Gray” sung by Billie Jo Spears, has endured.

“That it has this staying power makes me really happy,” he told The Baltimore Sun.

At the time, he was instructed to compose a song capturing “when the team does the extraordinary, when they do the thing you can’t do,” and this year’s Orioles have embodied that spirit.

Woodward had never made it to a game at Camden Yards, but he’d like to. Like so many others have this season, he’d like to experience the magic himself.

‘Baseball city’

For the fans who tolerated the rebuilding seasons — which included the most losses in Major League Baseball from 2017 to 2021 — this season has been the early-arriving light at the end of the tunnel.

Michele Sexton of Cecil County attended games during the lean years, when fielding a competitive team felt eons away. The worst part was watching an opposing player pitch a gem or make a great defensive play and realizing, “Well, that used to be an Oriole. He used to play for us.”

It’s always a good day at the ballpark, she likes to say, even then. But it’s more thrilling when the Orioles are winning.

“Or when you have a hope of winning,” she said. “It’s OK if they don’t win, but when you go to the stadium knowing you’re gonna feel like you got kicked when you leave, you don’t really wanna go.”

As attendance and interest increased this season, fans loyal throughout have poked fun at those now on board.

“We always joke about how everyone’s coming in, quote-unquote bandwagon fans, and it’s like … Where were you when Pat Valaika was our starting shortstop?” Ellison said.

In his 1990 baseball book “Men At Work,” George F. Will said “there are few, if any, better baseball towns than Baltimore.” And while focus on the game seemed to wane as the Orioles recently mounted 100-loss seasons, Baltimore’s adoration has been awakened this year.

When reliever Danny Coulombe was traded to the Orioles in March, one of his closest friends, Baltimore native and former pro pitcher Mike Thomas, told him that Baltimore was a “baseball city, not a football city.”

“If you guys start winning,” Coulombe recalled Thomas telling him, “it’ll come.”

Clarence “Fancy Clancy” Haskett, a beer vendor veteran of 49 Orioles seasons and Camden Yards celebrity, has noticed that arrival. Fans are more eager to wear team gear this season and are more captivated by the game, he said. When the Orioles are down — unlike in past years, when that all but guaranteed a loss — fans anticipate a comeback.

“Orioles Magic is back,” he said.

Questions about the team’s future do linger. Its young stars are without long-term contracts and the club has not yet formally signed a lease to remain at state-owned Camden Yards beyond this season, despite an in-game announcement last week that seemed to suggest otherwise. (Instead, the team has agreed to a “memorandum of understanding,” which is nonbinding, with the state.)

But the only question remaining for the 2023 baseball season is how far these Orioles can go.

Brandon Crawford, an Orioles fan from Carroll County, wore a paper bag over his head to several games in 2010 and 2011, when the Orioles were in the midst of 14 straight below .500 seasons. A teenager at the time, Crawford said he “didn’t know anything other than losing.”

Frustrated that the team was not only losing, but not building toward sustainable success, he sported the brown bag to highlight the exasperation of being an Orioles fan. That bag was destroyed during a downpour at the end of the 2011 season, which was good timing — the Orioles went on to notch three playoff appearances in the next five seasons. But in Crawford’s estimation, the health of the club is even better today.

“The time has come. I’m hoping I get to see the Orioles finally win a World Series,” he said. “I was born in 1995 and all I’ve known up until a few years [ago] is 90, 100-loss seasons. I’m ready to witness raising a World Series trophy.”

Crawford attended Thursday night’s AL East clincher as Baltimore — with its carefree talent, its uplifting season, its devoted fan base — donned the division crown.

Instead of a brown bag obscuring his face, he proudly smiled.

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