Earl Weaver, the greatest manager in Orioles history, was known for baiting umpires, not getting along with Jim Palmer and loving the three-run homer. More than anything, however, he would not accept losing. "On my tombstone just write, 'The sorest loser that ever lived,'" he once said.
For too long, the Orioles have accepted losing. They’ve accepted their role as the patsy in the AL East and haven’t had a winning season since 1997. They haven’t won 70 games since 2006. Once the crown jewel franchise of the American League, with Camden Yards packed every night, the O’s have been a joke for an entire generation of young baseball fans. Baseball, in Baltimore, was dead.
And then the Orioles hired Buck Showalter. And Buck ain’t gonna accept losing. That’s why I love his blasts about Derek Jeter and Theo Epstein. The message isn’t really about Jeter and Epstein: It’s a message to his team. We’re not going to let the Yankees and Red Sox continue to kick the crap out of us.
Over the past 10 seasons, the Orioles are 68-116 against the Red Sox; they’re 62-122 against the Yankees. They went 2-16 against Boston in 2009 and 3-15 in 2006. They’re 10-26 the past two seasons against the Yankees.
This is not acceptable for Showalter. He took over a team in 2010 that was a pathetic 32-73. Under Showalter the O’s finished 34-23, including a 6-6 mark against Boston and New York.
What happened? Showalter stressed two basic concepts: throw strikes and catch the ball. Under Showalter, the Orioles’ ERA went from 5.18 (29th in the majors) to 3.54 (seventh). Their defensive efficiency (the numbers of balls in play turned into outs) went from 27th to first. Those numbers are from the Baseball Prospectus annual, which points out that Baltimore benefited from two major defensive improvements: Brian Roberts returned from injury and third baseman Miguel Tejada was traded to San Diego (addition by subtraction).
The offense still wasn’t great, which was why the Orioles brought in Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds in the offseason. All three are risks: Lee and Guerrero are aging former stars and their tanks are rapidly depleting, and Reynolds hit .198 with Arizona and brings a questionable glove. J.J. Hardy, a solid defensive shortstop, was also signed to replace the feeble stick of Cesar Izturis.
I liked the moves. For the first time since the late ‘90s, the Orioles may be players in the AL East. The rotation still has a few question marks, but it could be sneaky good if Brian Matusz maintains the gains he made under Showalter (7-1, 2.18 ERA over his last 11 starts), highly rated rookie Zach Britton steps in and performs, and former prospects Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta live up to their potential.
Yes, that’s a lot of ifs. But I know this: If I’m the Red Sox and Yankees, I’m expecting a tougher Orioles team in 2011. Let’s hope some new (old) rivalries are just beginning.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.