This is when the fun is supposed to begin.
Every team says that at this time every year. Some know, some hope and the rest just pretend it will be true.
Count the Orioles among those who have every reason to expect to be a fun season. This is a different team, practically a complete makeover that is running a year ahead of schedule.
It was 1988 when manager Frank Robinson urged the organization to embark on one of those dreaded five-year plans that more often than not stretch over a decade. "The idea was to go with young players and have a competitive team by the time the new stadium opens in 1992," said Robinson.
Through the luck of the draft, the sudden parity of the AL East, the development of some players and the acquisition of others, the Orioles are a year ahead of schedule. And even though prospects could get better, Robinson admits the future is now.
"We're there [competitive] now," he said, "so let's go for it."
Few teams have changed more drastically than the Orioles over the last four years -- and the last four months. They have gone from a traveling tryout camp to a legitimate contender. And the arrival of slugging first baseman Glenn Davis served as the exclamation point for the changes.
The just concluded exhibition season revealed two things about the Orioles, other than the fact that they travel well together as a unit. It is a team that will score runs -- and will go as far as the pitching staff can take it.
"This lineup can go eight deep without a breather," said hitting coach Tom McCraw, who is excited about the possibilities. "They can all leave the yard on you. Then you get to No. 9 and think you've got a little breather and you've got Billy [Ripken], who made himself into almost a .300 hitter [.291] last year.
"Even though it was only spring training, we've already shown a couple of times that we can come back and get a team," said McCraw. "If we get four or five runs down, we know we have the capability of coming back. It's a good feeling."
That feeling is something pitching coach Al Jackson thinks will make his young staff more effective. A year ago he preached constantly about taking advantage of the Orioles' excellent defense. This year he foresees the offense providing the pitching with a comfort zone.
"There's no doubt that pitching is going to be the key," said Jackson. "And knowing that we're capable of putting runs on the board should help these guys. They're not going to feel like they always have to make perfect pitches."
The addition of Davis and veteran Dwight Evans, along with the development of players like Randy Milligan and Mike Devereaux, has changed the character of the Orioles' lineup. Instead of a "peck and hunt" outfit that had to scratch out runs one at a time, it is now a power-laden lineup capable of putting crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
The most appealing part of the transition is that the Orioles have made it by sacrificing only minimally their defense and team speed. And they should maintain their ability to manufacture runs when necessary.
Milligan in leftfield is a gamble, but it is one the Orioles can call off at any time by inserting him into the designated hitter spot and giving reliable Joe Orsulak a more prominent role. And if Evans is able to play the outfield on even a semi-regular basis the eight-time Gold Glove winner gives the defense an added spark.
To get a better idea of the potential potency of the Orioles' lineup, roll the calendar back a year. Milligan mostly hit in the fifth position in 1990, while this year his high on-base percentage has been transferred to the second slot. Mickey Tettleton, the fourth-place hitter for the last two years, would bat no higher than seventh, possibly eighth, if he was in this lineup, rather than in Detroit. And Bill Ripken is hitting ninth, despite having the highest average on the team a year ago.
With Devereaux and Milligan ahead of him, and Davis and Evans behind him, Cal Ripken should have more opportunities and a great deal more protection. "He doesn't have to look at himself as the sole power threat anymore," said McCraw.
All of which leaves the Orioles with the same key as every other contender -- pitching. For openers they need a healthy Ben McDonald, which they don't have at the moment. If they can get 35 starts out of the 6-foot-7 righthander they will have gone a long way toward resolving the problem.
Beyond that, a return to 1989 form by Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki would help Dave Johnson give the starting rotation a degree of consistency -- and take a lot of the pressure off Jose Mesa in his first full major-league season. Milacki, who struggled through most of the spring, will start the season at Double A Hagerstown.
Health is also a vital factor in the bullpen. Gregg Olson is coming off a club-record 37-save season, but he had a worrisome elbow problem. He was kept under wraps most of the spring, when he was only marginally successful and encountered a mysterious problem with his shoulder. He has pronounced himself fit for the start of the season, but he will be monitored closely.
As usual a large part of the bullpen burden will fall on Mark Williamson, and the righthander's durability is yet another key factor.
The pitching staff is loaded with questions and not all of them can be expected to have positive answers. But there is enough mix of quantity and quality to give Robinson some flexibility.
That flexibility could decide whether the Orioles make a good run and finish third -- or whether they close out Memorial Stadium's baseball career with a flourish that produces a division title.