- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2019

BALTIMORE — It’s not their worst season in recent memory — in fact, their record will end up an improvement over last year’s. But on Saturday the Baltimore Orioles reached 100 losses for the second straight year.

The pitching staff set a record for the most home runs allowed in a season before the calendar even turned to September. The offense is only mustering 4.4 runs per game through Sunday and a former home run king became a punchline with a .172 batting average.

The turmoil and bad memories aren’t contained to just the field, either.

In August, a pair of dugout spats were caught on camera: frustrated, slumping first baseman Chris Davis getting in the face of manager Brandon Hyde, then relief pitcher Richard Bleier arguing with third base coach José David Flóres weeks later. Meanwhile, the front office let go of 25 baseball operations employees in a span of three weeks, the most recent coming last week.

The casual observer might think the Orioles are unraveling. But those who follow the storied franchise understand that Baltimore is the latest professional sports team to embrace the pain of losing big now in hopes of bouncing back big later.

For now, Orioles management, led by general manager Mike Elias and his handpicked executive team, ask players and fans to “trust the process.”

It’s not always easy — not when the losses pile up into triple digits in consecutive years — but Orioles players are trying to keep their heads held high as they look to the future.

“I think you’ve got to try and keep some perspective of what we’re trying to do and why it makes sense for the future, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the guys that are actually out there, currently fighting,” designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. “I think everyone’s got personal goals that they’re working towards, and even though the team win-and-loss record is not what you want it to be, you’re still fighting for your own career and to support your family.”

‘Excited about the direction’

Elias arrived in Baltimore in November after helping the Houston Astros rebuild from the worst team in Major League Baseball into a World Series champion. His strategy to turn the Orioles around is the same. Elias told The Washington Times in July that the Orioles have no choice but to “go through some lean years” to get better.

He was hired after the Orioles posted the worst record in franchise history last year, 47-115. They actually began Elias’ job for him by trading away several of their best players — Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Jonathan Schoop — and not re-signing aging fan favorite Adam Jones after the season.

In that process, the Orioles acquired new prospects to stock up their farm system. Losing at a historic rate also earned them the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2019, which they used it on catcher Adley Rutschman. He played well at the Low-A level after the draft and could get some action in the mid-level minor leagues next year.

Elias touted the rebuilt farm system with his first season as general manager winding down. But what other positives could he point to besides a crop of prospects who won’t help the Orioles for a few seasons?

“Well look, it’s not the record at the big-league level,” Elias said. “I think we all know that and we’re disappointed by it. But more important than that right now is some of the individual development we’ve seen in some of our young players … There are several players that could be a meaningful part of our playoff future, and that’s here at the major-league level, not just in the minors.”

Those include infielder Hanser Alberto, who hits for average and plays good defense, and outfielder Anthony Santander, who’s risen to the occasion to win an everyday job in Baltimore.

Elias also wasn’t concerned the midseason dismissals from baseball ops would hurt morale within the organization, calling this time of year “contract season” in the baseball world.

“People expect change in this business,” Elias said. “I think that they expect change in the circumstance. I think the people that are here going forward with us, they take that as a vote of confidence. I think they’re excited about the direction, especially the emphasis that we’re gonna have on scouting and player development going forward.”

Playing for the future

The players themselves aren’t “tanking.” But the team as it was constructed this year didn’t have the talent to compete with the division rival New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.

Right fielder, first baseman and clubhouse leader Trey Mancini helps his teammates separate what happens at the field from their time off.

“When we’re at the field we’re very serious and take our jobs seriously, but when the game’s over and we go home, a lot of us hang out with each other off the field and just go out to dinner or whatever we do,” Mancini said. “We usually don’t talk about baseball too much away from the field. Everybody has a life outside of this, too. I think it’s healthy to kind of, whenever you’re away from the field, to just live your other life.”

That notion — essentially, not taking work home with you — was a theme around the clubhouse.

“You’re at the highest level. Everyone’s watching you. To take that pressure home, it’s not gonna be healthy for you,” outfielder DJ Stewart said.

The mood in Baltimore’s clubhouse before games isn’t somber. A few players play chess or table tennis while others chat at their stalls. At a recent road game, Stewart showed some public relations staffers some card tricks, though he doesn’t count magic as a hobby.

Others have different diversions when they get home from a game. Trumbo and his wife are caring for their first child, a nine-month-old daughter named Morgan.

“That’s taken up almost all of my time, which, you know, it’s kind of a nice distraction from some of the other stuff,” he said. “I have hobbies and other things. I usually take a trip right after the season. I’ve kind of recommended that to some other guys. Go somewhere kind of far away, completely different. That’s a good way to maybe reflect a little bit, but also get totally away from the high-stress environment” of professional baseball.

Mychal Givens finds purpose doing community work. The Orioles recently recognized the pitcher with the Orioles Way Award for the work he does with his Givens Back Foundation, which uses sports to reach out to kids in inner-city communities.

“What’s on the field and off the field, you separate it,” Givens said. “When I do my community stuff off the field, it’s my (space). And when I’m in here I’m gonna contribute to helping the team in whatever the best way I can do possible.

“As a baseball player, I’m just using my platform to kids and I’ve been helping them my whole entire life.”

In the end, Stewart said it’s helpful to remember that the team’s outlook won’t change overnight.

“We know what it is right now and no one likes losing,” Stewart said. “But I think we all have that mindset of working hard every single day and knowing that it’s not gonna happen right now, but in the future if we continue to do what we’re supposed to do and continue to get better every day, we’ll be rewarded in the end.”

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