From the time I was born until I went to college at the US Air Force Academy, the Baltimore Orioles did not have a losing season. That seems almost unfathomable today. From the dominant teams that were at the top of baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To the World Series teams of 1979 and 1983, they just never lost, with the old “Oriole Way.”
And after more than a decade of pain in the 2000s, it has been really fun to be an Orioles fan for the past five years. The core group of Adam Jones and Matt Wieters and Zach Britton and Manny and JJ and Chris Davis and so many others have been really fun to watch. Every September there has been interesting baseball, and occasionally in October. The Buck and Dan era has been good for the Birdland Soul.
However, speaking for myself, what I really want is a World Series championship. Or better yet, a string of competing for one year in and year out. What we’ve had recently has been fun. But to be honest, hoping for a winning season, or trying for that last wildcard spot, is not why you compete.
It’s time for some really tough decisions to be made in order to make the Orioles into a world championship team. If those decisions are not made and then aggressively pursued, we will fail. If the Orioles stay on their current track, they will never reach the World Series- they aren’t 3 or 5 years out, they will simply never get there. Tinkering with free agent and rule 5 pieces here and there means that at the end of September we will be hoping for a .500 record or counting the days until spring training starts. Forever.
I moved to Houston 17 years ago and they have become my adopted, second team. I used to root for an Orioles- Astros World series, now I root for an O’s – Stros ALCS. I was at the ALCS game 7 in Houston when they beat the Yankees, and I was at Dodger stadium for game 2 to see one of the wildest WS games in history. This Astros team is GOOD and fun to watch!
About 6 years ago I had lunch with former Astros President George Poustolos, who was proposing something crazy. As I listened to his pitch about the limitations of being a mid-sized market team and how the Cardinals were consistent contenders and how the 2004-2005 playoff Astros had been built by getting older players at the expense of the farm team, he painted a pretty bleak picture, unless drastic action was taken. He wanted to completely dismantle the big-league club. He warned that it would be ugly. He had a timeline. He was asking for patience. And by looking at the cold hard facts, there was no escaping it. The Astros could muddle in mediocrity, forever. Or they could make the tough decision and go for it.
And wow was he right. They went through three consecutive years of 100+ loss seasons. They lost so many games in the latter innings because they just didn’t have major league quality pitchers to finish games. The stadium was empty for years. Their payroll was literally just barely above the minimum possible- there was a time when nearly every member of their 25-man roster was making league minimum.
And things started to happen in the background that only die-hard Astros fans noticed. They started having draft picks and improving on a farm system that had actually been rated last in MLB. Players like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers and Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and Dallas Keuchel started to show up. They placed their faith in data and not opinion- I love their front office sign that reads “In God we trust- all others must bring the data.”
And then in 2015, out of the blue, the Astros shocked the baseball world and made it to the playoffs. And were a few outs away from beating the eventual-champ Royals and going to the ALCS. Less than 4 years after the experiment had begun. An experiment in which the Astros went all-in, and were willing to pay the price.
Today they have one of the best teams in baseball. Their position players 1-8 are the best in MLB, and this year they often played teams that didn’t even have one player who would be a starter on the Astros. Their pitching is so ridiculously deep that they have a starter who went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA who was left out of the playoff rotation and relegated to the bullpen.
So, Orioles fans, it’s time to be honest. We are not on a path to the World Series, and won’t ever be, without a very painful rebuilding that will last at least 3, maybe 5 years. The mantra that “you don’t rebuild in the AL East” is just false. Other clubs in the AL east are hoping that we continue on exactly the course that we are on- it will guarantee that they don’t have to face an Orioles’ team as good as the Astros in the future.
The path down this road is long and hard and doesn’t have a guaranteed outcome, other than a few very bleak years. Those years can be mitigated by picking up a few reasonable major – league caliber players, but there will be LOTS of pain. Fans will have to watch the Frederick and Bowie and Ironbird box scores as much as the the big-league club.
Buy low, sell high. It’s the one thing I learned when I went to business school. Everyone will have to be on the table. By that I mean everyone. The front office will have to decide on a timetable- will we compete in 5 years? If so, let’s build the cadre of players that will be under team control and young and uber-talented, 5 years from now. And that means putting all of our favorite players on the market. Getting tons of draft picks and minor league prospects. Deciding if selling high means November or December or July.
Like I said, there is no guaranteed outcome, but I’ve had a front-row to the rise and fall of several teams, and I can say a few things emphatically. 1) I really really want to see the Orioles contend for the championship, and soon. 2) That will not happen ever, using our current strategy. 3) It worked for my “other” team, the Astros.
I’ve been counting backwards from 11, the number of games the Astros still need to win, this year. So far I’m at 8 down, 3 to go. And I hope I’ll be making that same count for the birds in the not-too-distant future.
Terry Virts is a Baltimore native, an Orioles fan through thick and thin, a former astronaut, speaker, and author, and Monday morning (baseball executive) quarterback.