The Orioles have had their share of struggles since the turn of the century, but one event has always brought hope and joy to their fans: The home opener.
With the 2020 MLB season on hiatus for now, O’s fans are facing an indefinite wait for their annual unofficial holiday. But it never seems to matter how rough the previous year was for the Orioles. Fans never fail to turn out in droves to ring in the new season. Rain or shine. Warm or cold. The atmosphere at Camden Yards remains electric when the baseball season begins again, a sea of orange and black full of smiles and anticipation.
Even last year – one that began with most fans knowing the worst season in team history was in store – the ballpark hosted 45,971 for the home opener against the Yankees on April 4. Over the past 20 years, O’s fans have been rewarded for their optimism on Opening Day. Baltimore is 15-5 this century. That’s shocking given how many rough seasons followed those wins. The Orioles didn’t have a single winning season from 2000 to 2009, but still managed to win eight of 10 openers. Today should have been a time to gather at Camden Yards and see if they could build on that streak.
Eventually, we will kick off a new decade of Baltimore baseball. Until then, let’s look back to some of the more memorable openers of the past ten seasons, a decade in which the team had four winning seasons, made the playoffs three times and reached the American League Championship Series in 2014.
The 2013 season saw added buzz surrounding the new season, with the O’s coming off their first playoff appearance in 15 years. The previous year, the franchise changed logos to a throwback variation of their iconic cartoon bird. With the team’s new success, and gear, it was easy to find fans across the city sporting the new look.
It certainly added to the anticipation. The Orioles opened on the road and took two of three against the Tampa Bay Rays with Chris Davis homering in all three games. The Minnesota Twins then arrived in Baltimore for a three-game series. The O’s entered the bottom of the eighth inning of the home opener trailing by a run. An Adam Jones single tied the game, and with the bases loaded later in the inning, Davis cranked a grand slam to left to give the O’s a 9-5 lead and eventual win.
The Orioles would go on to win 85 games that season, though that wasn’t quite good enough for another playoff spot. That hot start for Davis was a sign of things to come, as he hit a franchise-record 53 home runs to lead the majors. It’s also worth noting this performance kicked off four straight years that an Orioles player took the MLB home run title. Nelson Cruz hit 40 in 2014, Davis again led everyone with 47 in 2015 and Mark Trumbo homered 47 times in 2016.
The Orioles entered the 2014 season with even more hype, being picked by many as the American League favorite. They beat the Red Sox 2-1 in the home opener, with Cruz hitting a home run in the bottom of the seventh for what became the winning run.
Winning the home opener is always great, and for most fans, taking down the Red Sox or Yankees is an added bonus. In a city that often struggles to keep visiting teams’ fans from taking over the stadium, O’s fans often find themselves competing for those “Let’s Go, O’s!” chants.
But 2014 was a renaissance at Camden Yards, a reminder that not that long ago they packed 3 million fans a year into the beauty of a ballpark – and most of them were Orioles fans. But all the losing took a toll on attendance. The Orioles dipped under 3 million for the first time in 2002 and under 2 million for a four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011.
That started to change in 2014 when 2.464 million fans made it to Camden Yards. That was the most since 2005 and the high-water mark of the decade. That’s how excited area fans were for the 2014 season and – for the first time in a while – it helped keep Red Sox and Yankees cheering to a minimum.
It was also emblematic of what was to come, as the Orioles won 96 games and the AL East that season before falling to Kansas City in the ALCS.
The numbers get really fun from 2016 to 2018. The O’s won all three home openers, and all three were won 3-2 thanks to a walk-off hit.
In 2016, Matt Wieters hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the visiting Twins. The start of the game was delayed for nearly two hours, and then again for another hour after the second inning. Chris Tillman started the game, throwing two scoreless innings with no hits, but could not last through the second delay.
The bullpen took over for the remaining seven innings, including five relievers who only allowed two runs on seven hits, a sign of things to come from a unit that helped key the team’s 2016 postseason run.
In 2017, Mark Trumbo hit a two-out, walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat the Blue Jays. Trumbo was coming off his home run title the year before, so fans were thrilled to see him pick up right where he left off.
Finally, in 2018 - and again in the 11th inning - Adam Jones hit a lead-off homer to beat the Twins. Dylan Bundy started the game for the Orioles and pitched seven shutout innings. The Twins scored twice to tie the game in the top of the ninth. But in what would wind up being his final season in Baltimore, Jones played hero once more.
The Orioles went 7-3 in home openers from 2010 to 2019, book-ending the decade with losses in 2010 and 2019. That sums up the decade well. They came into this stretch consistently losing games, found some unorthodox success for five years, and then tailed off into their current rebuilding state.
But none of those struggles matters much come Opening Day at Camden Yards. The Orioles usually rise to the occasion. And with the 2020 season facing a prolonged delay, when Opening Day finally does return to Baltimore it will have more meaning than ever.
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