BALTIMORE — A fan’s decision to purchase a player’s jersey is a decision to place a bet. The exact terms will vary—it can be as explicit as I bet this player will re-sign with the team, I bet this player will keep performing, or it can simply be I bet I will not be embarrassed to wear this in two years —but, in some way, in some form, the gamble is there. It’s a tiny act of faith, placed in equal measure in the player and in oneself.
So how does a fan pick a jersey to support the 2019 Baltimore Orioles, a club designed to test faith’s limits? In 2018, of course, they finished as one of the worst teams of the last century; that’s not exactly an encouraging foundation for any display of fandom, sartorial or otherwise. Now, though, they look different: The 25-man roster includes eight players new to the organization, with eleven who had never before been with the club for Opening Day. They have a new manager, and a new general manager, with a slew of accompanying personnel changes. And yet, for all these differences, they feel rather similar.
They are still projected to finish in last place. They are still expected to be one of the weakest teams in baseball. There could be significant change in the works, but it might not manifest for years. The Orioles have plenty of new names, but they haven’t made any meaningful upgrades, and so they are not more exciting so much as more anonymous. (Related: Baltimore currently has two bobblehead giveaways listed on its promotional schedule. One is for Brooks Robinson, who retired in 1977. One is for Star Wars Night. There is no promotion for a specific active player.)
Still. The Orioles’ home opener, an afternoon contest against the Yankees on Thursday, was, ostensibly, hopeful. Any home opener has to be—a little bit, at least— but Baltimore had an extra boost of cheer from its first week of the season, a surprisingly successful road trip on which it finished 4-2. This brightened the immediate outlook, certainly, but it didn’t fundamentally change it. The 2019 Orioles, in other words, are a difficult group to decide to place a bet on.
Take a random selection of a hundred jerseys on the concourse before the home opener, a hundred fans participating in their sacrosanct acts of personalized pregame ritual for the first time in the new year. This sample had plenty of throwback jerseys, always the safest bet to make, as you’d expect with a storied club like the Orioles: Cal Ripken Jr. (a lot of Cal Ripken, Jr.), Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer. This doesn’t say too much about the current state of the team, though; every historic franchise has a healthy contingent of these. No, instead, it was a different group of jerseys that showed just how difficult it has been to place a bet here: Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton, Matt Wieters. In a hundred jerseys, there were more of these—active players, traded or unsigned or otherwise departed—than there were of current roster members. In a hundred jerseys, in fact, there were only two current players who showed up more than three times: Trey Mancini, arguably the only “bright” spot here in the last two seasons, and Chris Davis, who, well, maybe the less said about Davis, the better. Their active teammates were almost nowhere to be seen, too unknown or inconsequential or uninteresting for fans to place a bet on them.
Davis, of course, should be a natural pick for the most popular current player here. He’s the longest tenured, having been in Baltimore since 2011; he’s the only one to be an All-Star as an Oriole, the only one to earn votes for MVP as an Oriole; he’s under contract for years to come, through 2022. He’s all set up as a conventionally safe bet to earn this type of goodwill. Yet, over the last year, he’s become the opposite. Davis’ 2018 was among the worst seasons of all time, and 2019 hasn’t been any better for him. He was the only player to elicit any booing during the pregame ceremony’s elaborate pomp and circumstance—jogging out on orange carpet, under an orange balloon arch, between two columns of orange flags, to a muddled reception from the crowd—and he was the only one to receive a strong reaction to his every move on the field thereafter, while his teammates gained a lead and blew a lead, ultimately losing by a score of 8-4.
Davis was booed when he struck out the first time, booed again when he struck out the second time, booed more heavily when he struck out the third time—and finally cheered, pointedly and raucously, when he was removed in the eighth inning. His replacement, Hanser Alberto, singled to advance a runner, but the cheers he received for the base hit matched only a fraction of the ones he’d received for simply walking up to the plate as Davis’ replacement. It didn’t matter so much who he was (an ex-Texas Rangers farmhand, claimed off waivers four separate times just this winter, making him an archetypical model for this team). Instead, it only mattered who he wasn’t.
The Orioles’ defining feature just might be their relative anonymity. This can have its perks; when people buy a jersey, after all, they’re buying a personal investment in cheering, which can just as easily become a personal investment in booing. When all bets are off, there’s nothing to lose—and playing along requires a special sort of faith.