Front and center

Sources: O's to add `Baltimore' to road jerseys next season

June 01, 2008|By RICK MAESE

Ten straight years of losing, more than three decades of pining and now finally a big win. In fancy dancing script perhaps? Or maybe in bold block letters? Oh, we can fret the details later. What's important now is this: "Baltimore" is back.

Meaningless on paper, puzzling to outsiders, and indescribably important to those whose passions rise and fall with the Orioles. Thirty-six years after the hometown was erased from the chests of Orioles players, it is expected to return next year.

While we could sit here and moan about how long it took, about the years of needless hand-wringing and head-scratching, what's the point? The complaints aren't new, the arguments aren't fresh and the reason behind the sudden change isn't exactly clear. But who really cares?

After years of stubbornly digging their heels in the dirt, the Orioles have reportedly notified Major League Baseball that they're finally willing to do right by their fans.

While the team has made positive steps in the clubhouse and in the standings, the organization also appears to have turned an important corner away from the field. Select games this season are televised in high definition. Ushers haven't been cracking their whips quite so loudly. And the team's promotional and community efforts have been tough to miss. (Before last night's game, for example, Freddie Bynum, Luis Hernandez, Ramon Hernandez and a trio of coaches hosted a clinic for 300 children at Carroll Park, and in Columbia, pitcher Dennis Sarfate signed autographs at a Chick-fil-A.)

But nothing this team has done could underscore its efforts and punctuate transformation more than finally addressing this continuing uniform mess. For years, Orioles fans have begged for change, and, for years, the front office has plugged its ears and stuck out its tongue.

Here's what might be most refreshing about the uni news: While team officials are careful not to confirm or deny anything, warehouse whispers indicate that the change was spurred from way up top. Peter Angelos has said since nearly the day he acquired the club that he wouldn't mind returning "Baltimore" to the road uniforms. But until now, he never got past the talking stage.

Admittedly, if he had focused his attention on a piece of laundry while the roster was in shambles, his priorities would've been questioned. Which is why now is a good time to finally make the move. In the Orioles, we have a team earnestly trying to return to its glory days, a manager who embraces fundamentals and the principles of the Oriole Way, and an organization that finally recognizes that it needs the community as much as the community needs the team.

Scanning the stands at Camden Yards last night, there were plenty of old jerseys -- Murray and Tejada and Ripken among them -- but it's clear that a good chunk of the fan base wasn't even alive in 1972, when the team last sported "Baltimore" on the road. But the movement to change the uniforms has never hinged on age and never lacked for support.

Alternately self-conscious and proud, Baltimore is a city that cares about perception, ownership and heritage. From rowhouses to neighborhood corners to the city docks, for years it was an unnecessary slight to send Baltimore's team around the country without proper branding.

Stitching "Baltimore" across players' chests links today's team with the images of Brooks at third, Frank at the plate and Palmer on the mound. The move, though, isn't just about honoring memories. It's about long-awaited change, a nod to symbolism as much as anything.

The road uniforms were altered a year after the Washington Senators left the neighborhood under the stewardship of former Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger. (Also occurring that year were the Watergate scandal and the advent of the designated hitter; O curse you, 1973!) The team broadened its reach and opened its arms to the region around Baltimore.

Returning the city's name to the uniforms is such a simple and poignant way for this team to embrace its fans and the city it calls home.

The meaning isn't limited to barstools, message boards and talk radio shows. There's a passage from Brooks Robinson's autobiography that I like, in which the Hall of Famer reflects on his 1955 debut: "When I came down the final steps of the tunnel to the dugout and then out into the light of day, I stopped for just a second. There they were, the Baltimore Orioles, and here I was, one of them. If it hadn't been for the uniforms, I'd have had to pinch myself."

So many of the Orioles' moves over the past 12 months -- whether they were initiated by team president Andy MacPhail, manager Dave Trembley or even the owner -- have resonated positively. They are sincere efforts that indicate the team is finally serious about turning the proverbial corner.

This latest one will surely be appreciated by fans. The Orioles might not yet be playing like the glory teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But soon they'll at least look like them.

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