It was just past 10 a.m., well before many season-ticket holders had even matriculated to the front of the line and entered the main doors at FanFest, when Orioles manager Buck Showalter walked across the main stage at the Baltimore Convention Center to a standing ovation.
"It's been tough on [the fans], whatever they need to embrace," said Showalter, alluding to the organization's 13 consecutive losing seasons and three straight last-place finishes in the American League East. "I'm hoping that when the season starts, that's going to be all funneled to our players and the job that they're doing on the field. It's uncomfortable for me a little bit, but I also understand that it's sincere, and I appreciate how they've made me feel welcome."
Optimism reigned at the team's annual winter carnival, attended by more than 10,000 fans who lined up to get autographs from their favorite Orioles players and coaches, participate in forums and other interactive games, and view exhibits that celebrated the organization's past successes.
The optimism was evident in the long line of fans that snaked around the Convention Center on a chilly morning long before the doors had opened. It was evident inside as well as one fan wore an Orioles jacket that included the years of the team's three World Series championships and a label that read, "This spot reserved for 2011."
And it was evident in the ovations given out not only to Showalter, but also to president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, now-healthy second baseman Brian Roberts, outfielder Nick Markakis and new infield acquisitions Mark Reynolds and J.J Hardy.
"Certainly, you're starting over for sure. Our record over the last two months [of last season] doesn't count going into spring training. However, the feeling does," said Roberts, who was limited to 59 games last season because of a herniated disk in his back and the effects of a late-season concussion. He said Saturday that he feels 100 percent.
"I don't think you lose the fact that we played really good baseball, the fans are excited, the city is excited and other teams are taking notice that the Orioles played really solid for 21/2 months. This is the first time in my nine years that we've had this momentum going into spring training. Usually, it's been [ending on] a down note and the offseason has been half-hearted optimism. But I think this year, people can look and say, 'Wow, maybe they are building something.' "
On Aug. 3, Showalter took over what was shaping up to be one of the worst teams in franchise history and guided it to a 34-23 record the rest of the way. He became the first manager since 1900 to take over a team in August or later and win more games the rest of the season than the team had won before he arrived.
A rare strong finish segued into a busy offseason, during which MacPhail acquired veteran first baseman Derrek Lee, a free agent coming off a disappointing season but just one year removed from hitting .306 with 35 homers and 111 RBIs; Reynolds, who has averaged 35 homers and 95 RBIs over the past three seasons; Hardy, a solid two-way shortstop; and several relievers to solidify the team's bullpen.
Those additions were applauded by fans and Orioles players — "This is the first offseason that a lot of moves have been made. You can't be anything but pleased with everything that has been done this offseason," center fielder Adam Jones said — yet there was still significant attention paid Saturday to another potential acquisition. MacPhail acknowledged that the Orioles remain in talks with veteran slugger Vladimir Guerrero, but they haven't moved any closer to a deal.
When one fan yelled, "Sign Vladdy," during MacPhail and Showalter's talk with season-ticket holders, Showalter joked: "We already talked about that. We're trying. We're taking donations right over here."
Whether Guerrero comes aboard or the Orioles go with what they have, most fans in attendance seemed confident that the team is headed in the right direction.
"I picked the Orioles to win 94 games this season," said Randy Poist, 31, a bartender at Pickles Pub across from Camden Yards. Poist thinks the season will be good for business because of increased fan turnout. "I'd like to see the team have more than one All-Star this year and have the team play well at the start of the season rather than [just] at the end."
John Onyun, a Kensington resident attending his second FanFest, said his excitement for the 2012 season is a result of several factors.
"It's a combination of the starting staff jelling and the additional bats, and of course, Buck," Onyun said. "The Buck stops here. His personality is great and very inspiring."