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Headed to the MLB playoffs, the underdog Orioles have revitalized Baltimore

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

I am standing just outside of one of the gates to Camden Yards, which is where the Baltimore Orioles play. It is a perfectly crisp fall night, and fans are still streaming into the ballpark, many of them wearing hoodies and jackets along with their Orioles jerseys. Something different is happening here this year, and it's something that hasn't happened for the Baltimore Orioles in years. And you can really feel it all over this city.

JOANNE MANDELLE: I keep asking, is this for real? I can't - you know, I have to pinch myself. Is this really happening?

SUMMERS: That's Orioles fan Joanne Mandelle. For someone like her, who's been a fan since she moved to Baltimore 50 years ago, that's a big deal. I met her and Kathy Buckner as they were walking away from the stand that was selling black-and-orange Orioles shirts and hats. They both have long memories of this team. Here's Buckner.

KATHY BUCKNER: I remember the '66 World Series and the '80s, when there was big birds and everything was exciting. And then it just - everything sort of fell apart, and it was frustrating to watch. It was tough to stay a fan.

SUMMERS: How did you do it? - because it did not seem fun.

BUCKNER: (Laughter) Well, you know, there's some black and orange somewhere in my blood that still was there.

SUMMERS: She is talking about the dark days of being an Orioles fan, when die-hard fans suffered through years of despair. The Orioles won their last World Series in 1983, and in the four decades since, the team hasn't been back. And some recent years have been rough. Three recent seasons, the Orioles recorded at least 108 losses but not this year.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Here we go.

SUMMERS: The Orioles ended the regular season with a historic 101 wins. And as the American League East champions, only one team in the major leagues had a better record. And tomorrow the Orioles will play the Texas Rangers in the American League Division series here in Baltimore.

MAUREEN HALL: I mean, if you're a true fan, this is like your Christmas.

SUMMERS: That's Maureen Hall. We met her just outside the gates to the ballpark. She and her friend Robin Goodwin were decked out from head to toe. Hall was sporting a black Orioles jersey and orange camouflage pants, and she wore this oversized Oriole bird hat. Goodwin was carrying a hand-painted Orioles shield, and both of them were wearing these big, orange chains with Oriole O's hanging from them.

Tell us about these outfits.

HALL: We're here to win a World Series again.

ROBIN GOODWIN: Yes, definitely a World Series.

HALL: Yeah, we'll go right to the World Series.

SUMMERS: All right. So we've got the hats. We've got the chains. We've got the shields. Do you just turn up like this for every game that you go to?

GOODWIN: Yes.

HALL: Oh, this is mild.

SUMMERS: Hall and Goodwin told us they have been waiting years for an Orioles team that looks as good as this one does. It's like a light at the end of the tunnel. But this team has also inspired a new generation of fans, like 16-year-old Mai Bolster, who was carrying this huge, baseball-shaped, double-sided sign.

MAI BOLSTER: My mom helped me with these. This side says, I want an Adley hug.

SUMMERS: An Adley hug. That's a reference to Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, who's one of the team's young stars.

M BOLSTER: I was definitely a fan in, like - when I was younger, like, maybe 2015, '16. But then I kind of didn't watch them as much for a little bit. My dad did. I know that.

SUMMERS: Mai came to the game with their dad, Peter.

What do the two of you like about going to games together?

PETER BOLSTER: They're funny, and they like the game. So that's pretty cool. It's not often that your father and kid get to go to a game together, so...

M BOLSTER: I actually watch more of the actual game now, though. When I was younger, I didn't - I was more interested in maybe the cotton candy or the playground.

SUMMERS: Peter Bolster told us he moved to Baltimore back in 1989, and before that, he had never lived anywhere with a team he could root for. And that was one of the good years.

P BOLSTER: And so I kind of caught the fire at that moment. And ever since then, I've been a pretty avid fan. The last few years have obviously been pretty dismal, and it was even really starting to stretch my ability to be a dedicated fan.

SUMMERS: That is ancient history. If you live in Baltimore now, like I do, there's a tangible energy around this team. There's hope, community and just plain excitement.

JOHN MEOLI: You walk down the street, and you hear the game coming out people's windows.

SUMMERS: That's John Meoli. He's a sports columnist for The Baltimore Banner.

MEOLI: You think about how different that is from recent years, and it kind of goes to show just how worthwhile all the work that's taken this organization to get to this point - how worthwhile it was.

SUMMERS: That work that Meoli's talking about - it took years, starting right after the team's dismal 2018 season. That's when general manager Mike Elias took over.

MIKE ELIAS: At the end of 2018, the team hit a wall and started breaking apart, and it was the worst season in the history of the Baltimore Orioles.

SUMMERS: To be clear, it was awful - 47 wins, 115 losses.

ELIAS: Some of the infrastructure deficits that the front office had in baseball operations - a lack of a strong international scouting operation, a lack of a modern analytics department, some fractured unity in the way the organization was run for the last few years. It all came to a head, and we needed to start over.

SUMMERS: Elias has stockpiled young talent and revamped the Orioles' infrastructure to develop it, and that long rebuild has paid off with the likes of young players like catcher Adley Rutschman and shortstop Gunnar Henderson. And many of those young players have never been in the postseason spotlight before. We asked Mike Elias how he was preparing them.

ELIAS: You know, we have a few veterans in the team that have had some postseason experience, but really, it's not that much, relatively speaking. And so this is going to be new for the whole team. But they've been - had the odds stacked against them every day. So I don't think the playoffs are going to be much different from them. I'm pretty levelheaded. I think they'll be excited. There'll be some butterflies, maybe some early jitters, but I expect them to play very well.

SUMMERS: When we talked to Elias, he was also very clearly thinking about building a team that has staying power beyond this historic season.

ELIAS: We want to keep our franchise at a championship caliber like this so that every year, we go into the American League East with a chance to win it and hopes of making a deep playoff run.

SUMMERS: The immediate question, though, is where this year's team will go from here. We asked the fans, starting with 16-year-old Mai Bolster.

Do you feel like this team that we're watching this season has the ability to go the distance?

M BOLSTER: Yes. Yes.

SUMMERS: That was fast.

A little less definitive but still supportive answer came from Eric Byroum, who started following the Orioles in the '70s. And he hung on through the highs and the lows. He drove down from York, Penn., to see the Orioles play.

ERIC BYROUM: If not this year, next year. Playoff is different than regular season games, and you have to gain experience. And they have this young core, this unbelievable core of players. I think they're in for the long run.

SUMMERS: LaChelle Pierce-Fogle loves coming to games with her big extended family. She told us she is rooting for the Orioles but also for the city.

LACHELLE PIERCE-FOGLE: You know, it's so much opportunity right here around the park, in the park itself. So us winning - like, Baltimore needs a win, so this is great.

SUMMERS: And now these fans will wait to see just how far these Orioles fly.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Juana, sounds like an exciting time there in Baltimore.

SUMMERS: You know, it really has been. I have to tell you I drive down from Baltimore to Washington to host the show with you and our colleagues every day. And this morning I drove right past Camden Yards, and there were a ton of people around, tons of cars. And I didn't know why. And then I looked, and I saw that tons of drivers were actually waiting in line to get these bright orange Orioles O's stenciled on their car. So if that's not an indication that we are swept up in Orioles magic in Baltimore, I don't know what is.

SHAPIRO: I might have to go up the road and take a look.

SUMMERS: Come on by.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.