SARASOTA, Fla. — — When the Orioles took to the practice fields for their first pitcher/catcher workout of spring training Monday, it was hard not to draw some metaphorical connection with the stadium construction project going on nearby.
The renovation of Ed Smith Stadium is nearly complete, but there are still scaffolds reaching well into the sky and lots to do before the dramatically upgraded facility is ready to host its first exhibition game in two weeks.
The rebuilding of the once-proud Orioles franchise is not quite so far along, but there is no disputing that the team has undergone significant cosmetic improvement over the past few months, and that has changed the level of expectation throughout the organization and its fan base.
It was just a bonus that there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the temperature hovered around 70 degrees as the O's went through their PFP (Pitcher Fielding Practice) and bullpen sessions. Quite a switch from the winter chill that persisted through most of spring training a year ago.
"I'm just hoping they come back like they did from the second half of last year,'' said Jim Prahme of Parkville, one of the fans who showed up on Valentine's Day for baseball's version of New Year's Day. "This is my first year here [at spring training]. Hopefully, this will just increase my interest in the club."
"If they start winning, that will increase my interest,'' piped in Patrick Wojciechowski of Whitehall. "If they can play .500 ball, I'll be happy."
The afternoon was relatively uneventful, except for one heart-stopping moment when projected Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie slipped on a practice mound and crumpled to the ground. The Orioles have improved their pitching depth, but not enough to weather the loss of their No. 1 starter, so it had to be quite a relief when new teammate Kevin Gregg helped him up and Guthrie completed his throwing session without further incident.
"It was not a scary moment,'' Guthrie said. "My foot just slipped out from under me."
Maybe not, but the cautious expectations for this team come with a heightened awareness of all that can go wrong and usually has over the past 13 seasons, none of which had a five at the front of its winning percentage.
That's why relief pitcher Koji Uehara was answering the same injury questions he had to answer at this time last year, even though he is coming off a terrific performance over the final two months of the 2010 season. He has been dogged by injuries throughout his first two seasons in an Orioles uniform, so even he acknowledges that he is "very conscious" of his uncertain status as one of the team's two closer candidates.
Uehara said through interpreter Jiwon Bang Monday that — like the fans — he is excited about the way last year ended and the way the Orioles have upgraded the team this year.
"It's a huge plus for the team obviously,'' he said. "I want to make sure I'll be able to participate in this atmosphere with the guys."
There are a lot of wild cards in this deck. Second baseman Brian Roberts showed up on the field early in the workout, though position players are not yet allowed to take part in regular drills. He said during FanFest that he's ready to put a year of back problems behind him, and echoed that enthusiasm on Twitter a while later.
"So excited for spring training, I decided to show up early,'' he tweeted. "It was a beautiful day here and it was great to see pitchers and catchers gearing up."
Guthrie, meanwhile, could have complained about the footing on the practice mound after taking that dive during his bullpen session, but he was as upbeat as everybody else about the opening of spring workouts and the picturesque facility that is almost ready.
"This is going to be very beautiful,'' Guthrie said. "The fans will be very happy to be able to come here and watch a game, and the players will be happy to work out in such a beautiful facility."
Manager Buck Showalter made no secret that he couldn't wait to get his first Orioles training camp underway.
"I love it,'' Showalter said. "Other than the playoffs, it's my favorite time of year because everywhere — all 30 clubs — there are positive vibes. Between now and about March 10, there isn't that anxiety about the numbers part of the game. Everybody thinks about the best-case scenario."
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.